Friedrich Spielhagen.

What the Swallow Sang: A Novel online

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he shared in his quiet way, and to whom his history was known; at least
Curt's father had known and related it, Gotthold could not remember
the occasion, and whether he had told the boys or - what was more
probable - communicated it to some friends over a bottle of wine, and
the boys had secretly listened in some corner.

It was long since Gotthold had thought of this story, which reminded
him of a time when many a beech-tree that now reared its stately head
far above the wanderer f did not exist. But now it once more came back
to his memory, down to the smallest details, which he really knew not
whether he had heard at that time, imagined since, or now first learned
from the rustling of the forest giants, and the murmur of the brook
that accompanied his steps.

"When we were under the Swedish rule," so all the stories of those days
began, there lived on the island two cousins named Wenhof - Adolf and
Bogislaf - both equally young, equally strong and handsome, and equally
in love with a charming young lady, whom her father would give only to
a rich man, for the simple reason that he had nothing but his noble
blood and the great estate of Dahlitz, which was loaded with debts to
an amount exceeding its value. The two cousins, it is true, did not
belong to the nobility, but they had descended from a very good old
family, and the Lord of Dahlitz would have made no objection to either,
except the one he was unfortunately obliged to make to both, namely,
that they were, if possible, poorer than himself. In fact, neither
possessed anything except a good rifle with the hunting equipments
belonging to it, and a pair of stout boots, whose thick soles crossed
the thresholds of their many friends on the island, where they were
everywhere welcome companions in the hunt or at the board. Of equal
height, and almost similar cast of features, they also did everything
alike, or so nearly alike that the hospitable, cheery land-owners saw
one enter the courtyard no less gladly than the other, and were still
better pleased when both appeared, which was almost always the case,
for the two cousins loved each other much more warmly than most
brothers, and as for their passion for the beautiful Ulrica of Dahlitz,
their hopes of possessing her were so small that it was not worth while
to quarrel about it.

Just at that time something happened which at one blow completely
altered their situation, or at least the situation of one of them.

A very wealthy and eccentric uncle in Sweden died, who, besides his
property in that country, had an estate on the island to bequeath,
namely, beautiful Dollan, which at that time included the forest down
to the sea-coast, and all the land across the wide moor to the
Schanzenberge. This estate he now left to the two cousins, or rather to
one of them, for according to the singular wording of the will it was
to go to the one whom a jury of six of his acquaintances should
pronounce the "best man." Everybody laughed when this strange condition
was made known, and the cousins laughed too. But they soon became very
serious when they considered that not only Dollan was at stake, but
Ulrica von Dahlitz, whom her father would joyfully give in marriage to
the owner of Dollan. It was strange to see the two cousins, who had
hitherto been inseparable, now begin to take separate paths, and, when
they could not avoid each other, measure each other with grave,
questioning, almost hostile looks, which seemed to say: I am the better
man.

In the bottom of his heart each was obliged to confess, and did
acknowledge, that the matter was at least very doubtful; and so thought
and said the six judges whom the two cousins had chosen, and whose
decision they had promised to obey. But all six were blameless young
men, who set about their difficult task very gravely and solemnly, and
held long, very long consultations, during which immense quantities of
good old red wine were drunk, and a vast number of pipes was smoked,
until they at last came to the following conclusion, which was
universally praised as a wise and perfectly suitable one.

The cousin who should best perform six tasks to be given by the judges,
should be considered by them and the world the best man.

The cousins would now have been in a very unfortunate situation, if the
judges had obtained their wisdom from any philosophical or learned
book; but no one of them had even thought of such a thing. The best
man, according to their standard, would be he who, in the first place,
should be able in the presence of the judges, within forty-eight hours,
to put a three-years-old stallion, which had never been mounted,
through the four principal paces - the walk, the trot, the gallop, and
the run; secondly, cross the moor of Dollan, from the manor-house to
the old smithy, with a team of four fiery young horses, going at full
gallop, on a certain line; thirdly, swim from the shore to a ship
anchored a German mile away in the offing; fourthly, from sunset to
sunrise - it was in June, and the nights were short - drink a dozen
bottles of wine; and fifthly, during that time play Boston with three
of the judges without making any great mistakes. But if, as was almost
expected, the judges even then could not decide, the cousins were to
have twelve shots with a rifle at a target placed at a distance of two
hundred and fifty paces, and the one who could hit the centre most
frequently should be "the best man," and the owner of Dollan.

This sixth and last trial was really a last resource, upon which the
judges had decided very unwillingly; for every child knew that Bogislaf
was not only the better shot of the two, but the best on the whole
island; still the matter must be settled in some way, and as Adolf,
perhaps hoping that he should win the prize before that test was
reached, made no objection to number six, everything was decided and
the contest could begin.

It began and continued as had been universally expected. The two young
sons of Anak rode their horses, guided their carriages, swam their
mile, drank their twelve bottles of wine, and played their Boston with
such equal skill and faultlessness, that the most scrupulous eye could
detect no difference in the merit of the performance, and with heavy
hearts the judges were obliged to proceed to the last trial, whose
result was not doubtful.

And heavy, heavy as a hundred-pound weight poor Adolf's heart might
well have felt in his brave breast, when he appeared on the ground on
the momentous day. He was very much depressed, and the secret
encouragement of the judges, who wished him well, did not cheer him.
"It is all useless now," he murmured.

But, strangely enough, Bogislaf seemed no less moved, nay, even more
agitated than his cousin. He was pale, his large blue eyes looked dim
and sunken, and his particular friends noticed, to their horror, that
when the cousins shook hands, as they always did before every contest,
his hand - his strong brown hand - trembled like that of a timid girl.

The cousins, who were to fire alternately, drew lots; Adolf had the
first shot. He was a long time in taking aim, raised and lowered his
gun several times, and finally hit the last ring but one.

"I knew it beforehand," he said, covering his eyes, and would have
liked to stop his ears; but he listened intently, and drew a long
breath, when instead of the "centre" he expected, the number of the
last ring on the target was mentioned, and repeated in a loud tone by
one of the judges.

Was it possible? Well then, there was still hope. Adolf collected all
his powers; he shot better and better, three, four, six, nine, and ten,
and again six and ten; and Bogislaf always remained one ring behind
him, neither more nor less - always one ring.

"He is playing with him, as a cat plays with a mouse," the judges said
to each other after the first three shots had been fired.

But Bogislaf grew paler, and his hand trembled more and more violently
at every trial, and only grew steady at the moment when he discharged
the gun; but he was always one ring behind Adolf, and now came the last
shot, the worst Adolf had made. In his terrible excitement he had just
grazed the outer edge of the target; if Bogislaf now hit the centre, he
would be the victor: the result of the long struggle, the magnificent
estate, the beautiful bride - all, all depended upon that one shot.

Pale as death, Bogislaf stepped forward, but his hand no longer
trembled; firmly, as if his arm and the gun were one, he took aim, the
glittering barrel did not swerve a hair's breadth, and now the report
crashed upon the stillness. "It has hit the mark," said the judges.

The markers went forward and sought again and again, they could not
find the bullet; the judges also went to the spot and searched and
searched, but they could not find it either. The unprecedented, almost
incredible thing had happened - Bogislaf had not even hit the target.

The judges looked at each other in perplexity, and for poor Bogislaf's
sake scarcely ventured to utter what must be said. But Bogislaf went up
to his cousin, who stood with downcast eyes, as if ashamed of his
victory, seized his hand, and evidently wished to say something which
did not escape his pale, quivering lips. But it could not have been a
curse, for he fell sobbing on Adolf's neck, pressed him to his heart,
then released him, and without uttering a word, strode away and
disappeared.

He remained absent. Many supposed he had killed himself; others
declared that he had buried himself in the northern part of Norway amid
the ice and snow to hunt bears and wolves; and they were perhaps right.

At all events, he was not dead, but after an absence of several years
suddenly appeared on the estate of a friend who had been one of the
judges, and here his cousin Adolf and his young wife Ulrica met
him - quite accidentally, for they had not heard of his return, and the
young wife was so startled that she fell fainting on the floor, and was
restored to consciousness with great difficulty. To be sure, she had
always been one of those who believed Bogislaf dead, and had already
had several discussions on the subject with her husband, who always
asserted the contrary. It was said that this was by no means the only
point of difference between the husband and wife, and there were in
truth many things which did not increase the happiness of the young
pair. True, the extravagant old Lord of Dahlitz, who had sold his
property to a Herr Brandow - Carl Brandow's great-grandfather - and then
lived very contentedly on his son-in-law for several years, was now
dead, but the daughter had inherited her father's expensive tastes, and
Adolf was anything but a good economist.

This last quality certainly did not prevent him from doing what the
simplest gratitude required; - and therefore - in spite of his wife's
opposition - he invited poor Bogislaf to visit him at Dollan and remain
as long as possible. At first Bogislaf positively refused, and with
good reason. The cause of the result of the shooting match had now
transpired! It was known that the evening before the contest Ulrica had
sent her cousin and most intimate friend, Emma von Dahlitz, a poor
orphan who lived with her wealthy relatives, to Bogislaf with the
message: she would never, never, though everybody should declare him to
be the best man, accept him for her husband, but Adolf, whom she always
had loved, and always should. Then Bogislaf, as he no longer had any
hope of winning the girl he loved, generously resigned to his cousin a
property which no longer had any charm for him.

He long refused to accept his fortunate cousin's invitation, but
finally came - for only a week. But the days had become weeks, the weeks
months, and the months years, so that this was now the fourth
generation which had known old Bogislaf Wenhof, or, as he was commonly
called, Cousin Boslaf, in the beach-house of Dollan. He had removed
there at the end of the first week, after purchasing it, together with
the few fields and meadows belonging to it, for a very small sum from
the government, which had originally built it for a watch-house; but
though the beach-house did not really belong to Dollan, but was Cousin
Boslaf's own property, Cousin Boslaf clung to Dollan all the more
closely, so closely that the constant intercourse had filled the heads
of the people with all sorts of superstitious fancies, in which the old
man sometimes figured as the good, and sometimes the evil genius of
Dollan, and especially the Wenhof family. Alas! even if he were the
good genius, he had been unable to prevent the ruin of the house, or
withhold the son of Adolf and Ulrica, who had many of the Dahlitz
traits of character, from selling Dollan to the convent of St. Jürgen
at the close of the preceding century, after which he was glad to
remain as a tenant where he had once been master. Cousin Boslaf had not
been able to prevent that, or any of the other things which had
happened from that time to the present day.

"But what does this mean?" said Gotthold to himself. "How can one let
his healthy brain become so bewildered by the rustling of the forest,
the murmur of the stream, and these old tales! I believe the serpent
has bewitched me with its cold glittering eyes, and I am still under
its spell. But its reign is over now. There is the sea gleaming through
the boughs, my own beloved, beautiful sea! Its fresh breath will cool
my hot brow. And he, the old man who lives yonder, and who learned so
early the meaning of the harsh word sacrifice; who renounced power,
wealth, and woman's favor that he might not lose his own manhood, was
probably the better and wiser man."

Still following the course of the stream, which, now that it was so
near its mouth, grew more noisy and impatient, falling in many a
miniature cascade as it hurried plashing and murmuring down the ravine,
overgrown with huge clumps of ferns and the most luxuriant grass,
Gotthold, a few moments after, reached the shore. On the right hand,
almost at the extreme point of the promontory, which, covered with
large and small stones like the rest of the coast, ran out several
hundred paces into the sea, stood Cousin Boslaf's house. The old flag,
which Gotthold had remembered from his boyhood, still fluttered from
the tall staff on the gable roof. It had originally been a Swedish
banner, but in the course of years the wind and weather had so dimmed
its colors, and made so many repairs necessary, that the authorities
could not have taken umbrage at this relic of foreign rule, even if
they had troubled themselves particularly about Cousin Boslaf's
actions. This, however, they had never done, so the old flag fluttered
and rustled and flapped merrily in the fresh breeze, which blew still
stronger as Gotthold now stood before the low dwelling, built partly of
unhewn stone from the shore, whose only door was on the side towards
the land. The door was locked; he could not look into the little
iron-barred windows on the right and left, which lighted the kitchen
and store-room, for they were considerably above a man's height, close
under the roof; and the strong iron shutters were put over the two
larger windows in the front of the house, which faced the sea.
Evidently Cousin Boslaf was not at home.

"To be sure," said Gotthold, "after an absence of ten years we can't be
surprised not to find a man who was eighty years old at the time we
left him."

And yet he could not believe that the old man was dead. He had just
been thinking of him so eagerly, seen him so distinctly in his mind's
eye - the tall, slender figure, walking with long, regular strides, as
he had so often beheld him. No, no, the old man belonged to the race of
giants; he had surely outlived this little space of time.

And then the house and its surroundings - the little front yard enclosed
by a walk, the tiny garden bordered with shells - did not look as if
they had been left for any length of time. Everything was in order and
painfully neat, as the old man used to keep it; the little bridge in
the creek to which he fastened his boat had even been lately mended
with new pieces of wood, carefully dovetailed together. But the boat
had gone; undoubtedly cousin Boslaf had rowed out to sea in her. To be
sure, it was not his custom, but the old man's habits might have
altered during the last few years.

The afternoon was already far advanced; the walk through the ravine to
the beach-house had occupied more time than Gotthold expected. He would
wait for Cousin Boslaf an hour longer, and then return to the giant's
grave, paint until sunset, claim the hospitality of the smithy for the
night, and early the next morning - it was to be hoped with better
success - seek out his old friend once more. Then he could reach Prora
at noon, and after taking leave of the Wollnows, drive on with Jochen
without delay. He had thought yesterday of finishing the picture in
Prora; but they would pass through the place to-morrow evening on their
return from Plüggenhof, so Jochen had informed him, and he would not
trust a second time to the chance which had saved him from meeting Carl
Brandow that very morning.

The young man had thrown himself down upon the shore under the shadow
of the beeches, which here extended to the very brink of the steep
cliff. Accustomed as he had been on his sketching excursions to satisfy
himself for a whole day with a piece of bread and a drink from his
flask, he now felt no hunger; but he experienced far more fatigue than
he had usually done after longer walks. As he lay there with the
beeches rustling over his head, and the waves breaking on the stony
shore beneath with their monotonous cadence, his lids gradually fell
over eyes wearied by long gazing over the boundless waste of waters.




CHAPTER VIII.


A few hours later, Carl Brandow and Hinrich Scheel were riding over the
moor from the smithy to Dollan, the same road which they had passed
over in the opposite direction not ten minutes before. They rode at a
quick trot, the groom a few dozen paces behind his master, though not
from any feeling of respect, and certainly not because he was worse
mounted. On the contrary, his horse was a magnificent brown animal of
the purest blood, far more valuable than his master's half-breed, so
valuable in fact, that any passer-by would have wondered how such a
noble animal could be ridden upon such an ordinary occasion. But
Hinrich Scheel was no ordinary rider; he noticed every movement of the
horse upon the rough road as carefully as if he were training it upon a
smooth race-course; not the smallest awkwardness was suffered to pass
unnoticed; it had just been guilty of a trick for which it must be
punished; and that was the reason why he had remained a little behind.

Suddenly Carl Brandow drew his rein, and half turning said, over his
shoulder, "Are you perfectly sure you saw him?"

"I told you I passed within a hundred paces of him," answered Hinrich
Scheel sulkily; "and I had plenty of time to look at him too; I believe
he stood up there an hour, as if he had taken root."

"But why did that scoundrel of a Jochen say just now that he didn't
know where he was?"

"Perhaps he doesn't."

"Stuff and nonsense!"

They rode on a short distance side by side; the master staring gloomily
straight before him, and the groom from time to time casting a sly
glance at him from his squinting eyes. Then he urged his horse still
nearer and said:

"Why should he know? I don't know why you are running after him as a
cat chases a mouse."

"Bah!"

"Nor why you came back from Plüggenhof so soon, have ridden the horses
half to death, and gave me a louis-d'or when I told you I had seen
him."

"I'll give you six if you'll tell me where I can find him," cried Carl
Brandow, turning eagerly in his saddle.

"Where you can find him? Why that's easy enough; with the old man in
the beach-house yonder."

"Where I cannot seek him."

"Without having the old man send a bullet through your body. Six
louis-d'or! I think I should wait a long time for the money. But I will
tell you where you can find him without the gold, if you'll let me ride
Brownlock across the bog."

"Are you crazy?"

"I will cross it faster than you can cross the hill. Can I go?"

Before them the road ran in a tolerably steep ascent over a hill, an
outlying spur of the Schanzenberge on the left, which stretched some
distance into the moor. On the right of this hill a broad tract of
marshy land extended across the moor to the forest, where it found an
outlet in the stream whose course to the sea Gotthold had followed that
afternoon. The summit of the hill had undoubtedly sunk into the marsh
years before, for the long mound of earth divided it like a wall, which
at the time it was engulfed had doubtless been very steep, but in the
course of years had been so much washed away by the trickling of water
down the hillside that, it now formed an irregular slope, along whose
upper edge ran the old carriage road, while farther up the acclivity
large stones made the way impassable for vehicles, although horsemen
and pedestrians might wind through. The condition of affairs had
probably not been so bad when Bogislaf and Adolf Wenhof were obliged to
drive their horses along here at full gallop, for now no man in his
senses would pass the spot in a carriage except at a walk, and Jochen
Prebrow was perfectly right when he said that it would have been easy
for him - or any one else - to execute Curt's wild order, and hurl the
young pair down the slope into the bog on their wedding day.

The riders had stopped their horses; Carl Brandow looked up the hill
and over the marsh.

"You are crazy," he said again.

"Crazy or not," exclaimed Hinrich Scheel impatiently, "it must be done.
I went to Salchow this morning to hear what Mr. Thompson had to say.
The fellow always knows everything, and declares that they have
enclosed a piece of marshy ground in the race-course for Brownlock's
special benefit, because they think he is too heavy to cross it, and
you'll be obliged to take a wide sweep around. Well, sir, if you make
the victory so easy for Bessy, Count Grieben and the other gentlemen
will be very well satisfied, and I can be satisfied too."

"You would be no better, suited than I," said Brandow, and then
muttered between his teeth: "everything is all of a piece now."

"Shall I?" said Hinrich Scheel, who probably perceived his master's
irresolution.

"For aught I care."

A ray of joy flitted over Hinrich's ugly face. He turned the horse,
which had long been champing his bit impatiently, and galloped a
hundred paces to the left, to the edge of the marsh, then paused and
shouted:

"Ready?"

"Yes!"

"Now!"

Brownlock sprang forward with a mighty leap, and then flew over the
marshy ground. Again and again his light hoofs broke through the thin
covering of turf, so that the water dashed high into the air, but his
wild speed did not lessen, on the contrary it seemed to increase, as if
the noble animal knew a bottomless gulf was yawning under him, and that
he was running for his own life and that of his daring rider. And now
the quaking soil grew visibly firmer. The deed scarcely believed
possible had been accomplished, Brownlock had crossed the marsh, and
would cross any other. "There is no doubt now," muttered Brandow, "I
can accept every bet; and am I to let Plüggen have the animal for the
paltry sum of five thousand thalers! I should be a fool! Besides, he
probably was not in earnest; but the money must be forthcoming, even if
I should have to steal or commit a murder for it. Holloa!"

He had not turned his eyes from Brownlock, as he rode across the hill
at a gallop without noticing where he was going, until his chestnut,
accustomed to pass this place at a walk, recoiled from the edge so
suddenly that the gravel and pebbles rolled down the slope.

"Holloa!" cried Brandow again, as he soothed the frightened animal, "I
came very near committing the murder on myself."

He rode down the other side of the hill more cautiously, and then
dashed up to Hinrich, who was galloping up and down the edge of the
bog, trying to soothe the snorting racer.

"What do you say to that, sir?"

"That you are a capital fellow; and now, since you have had your own
way, where do you think I shall find him?"

"On the giant's grave," said Hinrich; "I went up there after he had
gone away, and found a thing like a box. There was a little key
sticking in it, and it held his painting tools, as I saw. The box had
been put carefully in the shade; but about six o'clock the sunlight



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