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This pa.s.sage from Kindlinger’s _Contributions to the History of the Diocese of Munster_ conducts us to the scene of our story. It throws a light on our hero, the Justice. He was the owner of one of the largest and wealthiest of the Main Estates, or Oberhofs, which still exist in those regions, but which, to be sure, have now fused together to a small number.
There is something remarkable about the first traditions of a tribe, and the people as a whole have just as long a memory as the individual persons, who are wont to retain faithfully to extreme old age the impressions of early childhood. When now we consider that an individual human life may last as long as ninety years, and, furthermore, that the years of a people are as centuries, it is no longer a matter of wonder to us that, in the regions where the events of our story took place, we still here and there come across much that points back to the time when the great Emperor of the Franks succeeded, by means of fire and sword, in converting the obstinate inhabitants.
And so if, in the place where once the Supreme Justice and the heir of the region lived, Nature once more awakens special qualities in a person, there may grow up amid these thousand-year-old memories and between the boundaries and ditches which are, after all, still recognizable, a figure like our Justice, whose right of existence is not acknowledged by the powers of the present, to be sure, but which for its own self, and among its own kind, may temporarily restore a condition which disappeared long ago.
Let us look around in the Oberhof itself. If the praise of a friend is always very ambiguous, then surely one may trust the envy of an enemy; and the person most worthy of credit is a horse-dealer, who calls special attention to the comfortable circ.u.mstances of a peasant with whom he could not agree in a matter of business. To be sure, one could not say, as the horse-dealer Marx did, that the surroundings reminded one of a count’s estate; on the other hand, in whatever direction one looked there was an atmosphere of peasant prosperity and opulence which could not but call out to the hungriest stranger: Here you can eat your fill; the plate is never empty.
The estate lay entirely alone on the border of the fertile plain, at the point where it pa.s.ses over into hilly woodland; indeed, the Justice’s last fields lay on a gentle slope, and a mile away were the mountains.
The nearest neighbor in the peasant community lived a quarter of an hour away from the estate, around which were spread out all the possessions which a large country household had need of–fields, woods and meadows, all in compact uninterrupted continuity.
From the foot of the hills the fields ran down in beautiful order across the plain. It was, moreover, about the time when the rye was in blossom; its exhalation, as a thank-offering of the soil, rose from the spikelets and was wafted aloft on the warm summer breezes. Single rows of high-trunked ashes and knotty elms, planted on either side of the old boundary ditches, inclosed a part of the cornfields, and, being visible from afar, indicated, more definitely than stones and stakes can do, the limits of the inheritance. A deep road ran between dikes of earth diagonally across the fields, branched off into paths at several places on both sides, and led, at the point where the grain ceased, into a vigorous and well-kept oak grove, under which a number of hogs were comfortably imbedded in the soil, the shade of which, however, was equally refreshing to human beings. This grove, which supplied the Justice with wood, extended to within a few paces of the farmhouse and inclosed it on two sides, thus, at the same time, affording it protection against the east and north winds.
The house, which had two stories, and the walls of which were of panel-work painted white and yellow, was roofed only with straw; but, as the latter was always kept in the very best condition, it did not produce an impression of poverty, but, on the contrary, rather increased the general effect of comfort which the house imparted. Of the inside we shall learn more anon; suffice it to say for the present that on the other side of the house there was a large yard, surrounded by barns and stables, in the plastered walls of which the keenest eye could not detect a faulty spot. Large lindens stood before the front door, and there too, but not on the wall side, seats were placed, as we have already seen. For the Justice, even when he was resting, wanted to keep an eye on his household.
Directly opposite the house one looked through a lattice gate into the orchard, where strong and healthy fruit-trees spread their leafy branches out over the fresh gra.s.s, vegetables and lettuce. Here and there, in between, little beds of red roses and fire-lilies were thriving. Of the latter, however, there were very few, for a true peasant devotes his ground only to necessary things, even when his circ.u.mstances permit him to cultivate some of nature’s luxuries.
Everything beyond the orchard, as far as the eye could see, was green.
For on the other side of the garden lay the extensive meadows of the Oberhof, in which the Justice had room and fodder for his horses. Their breeding, carried on with great industry, was one of the most lucrative sources of income the estate enjoyed. These verdant meadows were also surrounded by hedges and ditches; one of them, moreover, contained a pond in which well-fed carp swam about in shoals.
On this rich estate, surrounded by full barns, full lofts and stables, dwelt the old, widely respected Justice. But if one climbed the highest hill on the border of his land, one could see from there the towers of three of the oldest cities in Westphalia.
At the time of which I speak it was approaching eleven o’clock in the forenoon. The whole vast estate was so quiet that scarcely any noise was audible, save the rustling of the leaves in the tree-tops. The Justice was measuring out oats to his servant, who flung each sack across his shoulders and trudged slowly over to the stable with it. The daughter was counting up her dowry of linen and wool, and a maid was working in the kitchen. All the other dwellers on the estate were lying asleep; for it was just before the harvest-time, when peasants have the least to do, and the workmen use every spare minute for sleep, in order to prepare themselves, in a measure, for the approaching days of toil and sweat.
For in general, country people, like dogs, can, if they wish to, sleep at all hours of the day and night.
WHEREIN THE HUNTER SENDS HIS COMPANION OUT AFTER A PERSON BY THE NAME OF SCHRIMBS OR PEPPEL, AND COMES HIMSELF TO THE OBERHOF
From the hills which bordered the Justice’s fields there came forth two men of different appearance and age. The one, clad in a green hunter’s jacket, with a little cap on his curly head and a light Liege gun on his arm, was a strikingly handsome youth; the other, dressed in more quiet colors, was an elderly man with a frank and sincere manner. The younger strode on ahead, as nimbly as a stag, while the older maintained a somewhat slower gait, like that of a worn-out hunting-dog lagging behind the master to whom he is still ever faithful. After they had emerged into an open s.p.a.ce at the foot of the hills, they both sat down on a large stone, which lay there beside several others in the shade of a mighty linden. The younger man gave some money and papers to the older, pointed out to him the direction in which he was to continue his way, and said:
“Go now, Jochem, and be discreet, so that we can get hold of this confounded Schrimbs or Peppel who has been inventing such monstrous lies, and as soon as you discover him, let me know.”
“I’ll be discreet all right,” replied old Jochem. “I’ll make such sly and secret inquiries in all the villages and cities about a man who signs his name Schrimbs or Peppel, that it would have to be the devil’s own fault if I don’t succeed in locating the wretch. In the meanwhile you lie low here _incognito,_ until you receive further news from me.”
“Very well,” said the young man, “and now, Jochem, be very cautious and thoughtful all the time in the way you handle the matter, for we are no longer in dear Suabia, but out among the Saxons and Franks.”
“The miserable fellows!” exclaimed old Jochem. “Faith, they have long talked about Suabian stupidities! They shall see that a Suabian can be a sly bird too when it is necessary.”
“And keep always to the right, my Jochem, for the last tracks of this Schrimbs or Peppel are headed that way,” said the young man, standing up and giving the old man a cordial parting handshake.
“Always to the right, of course,” replied the latter. He handed over to the other his hunting-bag, which was stuffed full, and which up to now he had been carrying, lifted his hat and went off, following a side-path at the right, down toward the region where, in the distance, one could see towering up one of the steeples mentioned in the foregoing chapter.
The young man, on the other hand, went directly down toward the Oberhof.
He had taken perhaps a hundred steps when he heard somebody running behind him and panting. He turned around and saw that his old companion was hurrying after him.
“There was one more thing I wanted to ask and beg of you,” the latter cried. “Now that you are alone and left to yourself, get rid of your gun; for you certainly won’t hit anything and, sure as death, you will have a mishap again, as you almost did not long ago when you fired at the hare and came very near killing the child.”
“Yes, it is d.a.m.nable to be always firing at things and never hitting them,” said the young man. “But, truly, I’ll put restraint on myself, no matter how hard it may be to do it, and not a single shot shall fly out of these barrels as long as you are away from me.”
The old man begged him for the gun, but the young man refused to give it up, saying that, without a gun, it would surely cost no self-restraint to refrain from shooting, and that his method of procedure would then lose all its merit.
“That is very true,” replied the old man, and, without bidding his companion a second good-by, inasmuch as the first one still held good, he went back rea.s.sured, along the path which had been pointed out to him.
The young man stood still, rested the gun on the ground, thrust the ramrod into the barrel, and said:
“It will be difficult to get the charge out, and yet it can’t stay in.”
With that he tossed the gun over his shoulder and walked in the direction of the Justice’s oak grove. Just before he got there a drove of heath fowl started up from a narrow strip of borderland, flapping their wings and screaming loudly. In exultation the young man s.n.a.t.c.hed the gun from his shoulder, crying: “Here’s my chance to get rid of the shot forthwith!” and took aim. Both barrels went off with a roar, and the birds flew away uninjured. The hunter gazed after them in astonishment and said:
“This time I thought I couldn’t have helped hitting something. Well, from now on I shall certainly restrain myself.” With that he continued his way through the oak grove to the house.
When he entered the door he saw, sitting at dinner in a high and s.p.a.cious hall which took up the entire centre of the house, the Justice, his daughter, his farm-hands and maids, and in a resonant, euphonious voice he gave them a friendly greeting. The Justice scrutinized him with care, the daughter with astonishment; as for the men and maids, they did not look at him at all, but went on eating without paying any attention to him. The Hunter approached the master of the estate and inquired about the distance to the nearest city and the way to get there. At first the Justice did not understand his strange-sounding language, but the daughter, without once turning her eyes from the handsome Hunter, helped her father to get the meaning, whereupon he gave the correct information. Only after three repet.i.tions was the Hunter, on his part, able to understand the reply; but he finally succeeded in making out that the city was not to be reached in less than two long hours, and then only by a path which was difficult to find.
The midday heat, combined with the sight of the tidy meal before him and his own hunger, prompted the Hunter to ask the question whether for love or money he could have something to eat and drink and shelter till the cool of evening.
“For money, no!” replied the Justice, “but for love the gentleman may have dinner and supper and a place to rest as long as he wants it.” He had a tin plate, as clear and bright as a mirror, a knife, a fork and a spoon, just as bright as the plate, laid upon the table, and pressed his guest to sit down. The latter fell upon the well-cooked ham, the big beans, the eggs and sausages, which const.i.tuted the meal, with all the appet.i.te of youth, and discovered that the food of the country, which was everywhere decried as Boeotian, was, on the contrary, not at all bad.
Very little talking was done by the hosts, for peasants do not like to speak while they are eating. Howsoever, the Hunter, on inquiry, managed to find out from the Justice that no man by the name of Schrimbs or Peppel was known anywhere around in that vicinity. The farm-hands and maids, who sat apart from the seats of honor at the other end of the long table, kept absolutely silent and looked only at the dishes out of which they spooned their food into their mouths. After they had finished eating, however, and had wiped their mouths, they stepped up to the Justice, one after the other, and said: “Master, my motto;”
whereupon the Justice addressed to each one a proverbial phrase or a biblical pa.s.sage. Thus to the first man, a red-haired fellow, he said: “p.r.o.neness to dispute lights a fire, and p.r.o.neness to fight sheds blood;” to the second, a slow, fat man: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways and be wise;” to the third, a small, black-eyed, bold-looking customer: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
The first maid received the motto: “If you have cattle, take care of them, and if they bring you profit, keep it;” and to the second he said: “Nothing’s ever locked so tight but it will some day come to light.”
After each one had been remembered in this way, they all went off to their work, some looking unconcerned, others embarra.s.sed. The second girl blushed a deep crimson when she heard her motto. The Hunter, who was gradually learning to understand the local dialect, listened to this lesson with astonishment, and after it was over he asked what the purpose of it was.
“To give them something to think about,” said the Justice. “When they come together here again tonight, each one of them will tell me what he or she has been thinking relative to the motto. Most of the work in the country is of such a kind that, in doing it, the people are liable to think all sorts of things, and they get a lot of bad notions in their heads, which afterwards break out in the form of wantonness, lies, and deception. But when a man has such a motto to ponder over, he will not rest until he has extracted the moral from it, and meanwhile the time has elapsed without any evil thoughts having entered his mind.”
“You are a true philosopher and priest,” cried the Hunter, whose amazement was increasing with every minute.
“One can accomplish a great deal with a person when one brings morality home to him,” said the Justice thoughtfully. “But morality sticks in short sayings better than in long speeches and sermons. My people keep straight much longer since I hit upon the morality idea. To be sure it does not work all the year round; during planting and harvest-time all thinking ceases. But it isn’t necessary then anyway, because they have no time for wickedness.”
“You have, then, regular sections in your teaching?” asked the Hunter.
“In winter,” replied the Justice, “the mottoes usually begin after threshing and last until sowing. In summer, on the other hand, they are a.s.signed from Walpurgis Night until dog days. Those are the times when peasants have the least to do.”
With that he left the young man, who got up and looked around in the house, the yard, the orchard, and the meadow. He spent several hours in this inspection, since everything he saw attracted him. The rural stillness, the green of the meadows, the prosperity which beamed upon him from the whole estate, all made a most pleasant impression, and aroused in him a desire to spend the one or two weeks that might elapse before he received news from old Jochem there in the open country rather than in the narrow alleys of a small city. Inasmuch as he wore his heart on his tongue, he went forthwith to the Justice, who was in the oak grove marking a pair of trees for felling, and expressed his wish. In return he offered to a.s.sist in anything that might be of use to his host.
Beauty is an excellent dowry. It is a key which, like that little one of gold, opens by magic seven locks, each one different from the rest. The old man gazed for a moment at the youth’s slim yet robust figure and at his honest and at the same time splendidly aristocratic face, and at first shook his head persistently; then, however, he nodded approvingly, and, finally growing friendly, granted him his request. He a.s.signed to the Hunter a corner room on the upper floor of the house, from one side of which one could see across the oak grove toward the hills and mountains, and from the other out over the meadows and corn fields. The guest had, to be sure, in place of paying for his room and board, to promise to fulfil a very peculiar condition. For the Justice did not like to have even beauty favored without an equivalent return.
THE HUNTER HIRES OUT AS POACHER
He asked the young man, before he promised him quarters, whether he was a lover of hunting, as his green suit, gun and hunting-bag seemed to indicate. The latter replied that, as far back as he could remember, he had always had a pa.s.sion amounting to real madness for deer-shooting; in saying which, to be sure, he concealed the fact that, with the exception of a sparrow, a crow, and a cat, no creature of G.o.d had ever fallen victim to his powder and lead. This was in reality the case. He could not live without firing a few times a day at something, but he regularly missed his aim; in his eighteenth year he had killed a sparrow, in his twentieth a crow, and in his twenty-fourth a cat. And that was all.
After the Justice had received his guest’s affirmative answer, he came out with his proposition, which was, namely, that the Hunter should every day lie out in the fields a few hours and keep off the wild animals, which were causing a great deal of injury to his corn fields, especially those lying on the slope at the foot of the hills.
“Yonder in the mountains,” said the old peasant, “the n.o.blemen have their great hunting-ranges. The creatures have already in past years eaten up and trampled down enough of my crops, but this is the first year that it has become serious. The reason is, that the young count over there is an ardent hunter and has enlarged his stock of game, so that his stags and roes come out of the forest like sheep and completely ruin the product of my toil and sweat. I myself do not understand the business, and I don’t like to turn it over to my men because it gives them an easy chance, under the pretext of lying in wait, to become disorderly. Consequently the beasts have now and then worked enough havoc to make a man’s heart ache. Your coming now is, therefore, very opportune, and if for these two weeks before harvest you will keep the creatures out of my corn for me, we’ll call that payment for your room and board.”
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