(The Artist’s Second Story from TALES OF THE WONDER CLUB)
by M.Y. Halidom
A respectable ancestor of mine, far back in the middle ages, went to study at a German university. I cannot call to mind the name of it, but that is of no consequence. I think he studied medicine, but I will not be sure even of that. I know that he belonged to a “chor,” or company of students who prided themselves on their liberty, who had their own laws and customs, who fought duels with rival chors, and who settled disputes among themselves by outvieing each other in the drinking of beer, who reveled in street brawls and other such respectable amusements, played practical jokes upon the peaceful citizens; in fact, made night hideous.
I know not whether my ancestor was any better or worse than his fellow students, but he seems to have entered with pleasure into all their amusements, and never to have held himself aloof when any mischief was going on. He was as consequently looked up to rather than otherwise by his companions. It was the custom then, and still is among German students, to travel long distances on foot together, often in large numbers, and putting up at night, if they could, at some inn; if not, in some cottage, stables, or loft, with nothing but straw to sleep upon.
But German students are not pampered mortals, and can put up with very homely accommodation. If after a fatiguing day’s march a student can find at his quarters sufficient beer, black bread, sausage, raw ham, or a little strong cheese, he is perfectly satisfied. Should he be so fortunate as to light upon a dish of “sauer kraut,” he would fancy himself in the seventh heaven.
The German is hardy, yet studious, highly sensitive, and keenly susceptible to the beauties of nature. Though somewhat penurious, he is fond of good fellowship, and is a staunch friend.
The walking tour in Germany is a thing common to all classes, from the nobility down to the “handwerkbursch,” or journeying mechanic, which latter class is often unmercifully persecuted by the university student. From time immemorial there seems to have been a feeling of animosity between the two classes, such as nearer home we find existing between the “town and gown.”
The German student of the middle ages, as in our times, was fond of swagger, delighted in wearing high boots, enormous spurs, an exaggerated sword, a preposterous hat, was provoked to a duel on the slightest occasion, boasted of the number of “schoppen” or “seidel” of beer that he could stow away beneath his doublet, and ran up long bills without a thought of how they were to be paid.
In those days every student had his guitar or other musical instrument wherewith to serenade his “ Liebchen” or lady-love, for that latter article was indispensable to the life of a student, and though much grossness and barbarity has been attributed to him, he is, nevertheless, at times capable of being elevated by a pure and refined passion, for he has much poetry in his nature, and is both sentimental and romantic in the extreme.
In all ages students have meddled much in politics, and princes have been known to tremble before their audacity and resolution.
But enough of this digression, gentlemen. My present tale demands only that you should call up in your minds the German student on his pedestrian tour in the long vacation, with his keen relish of the beautiful, his lusty and well-trained frame, that laughs at fatigue; his love of good-fellowship, his tender thoughts of home and worship of his lady-love.
I must now return to my ancestor, who, at the time this story commences, was on one of these walking rambles, accompanied by some twenty of his fellow students, all stout, hearty youths, who could eat, drink, and fight with any in the university; and flirt, too, I’ve no doubt, when occasion tempted them.
These attributes, you will say, are not strictly necessary to the student preparing for honours, yet, nevertheless, somehow German students manage to find time for other amusements besides dry study. They can play; but when they do study, they study hard.
My ancestor at the time I speak of was a young man of about twenty, and had already been two years at the university. We may presume, therefore, that he spoke German fairly, if not well.
I believe it was in the Harz mountains, the Thüringer Wald, and those parts, that he was traveling on foot with his friends.
They rose at daybreak and walked hard, with their knapsacks on their backs, singing or conversing as they went, reposing at noon in some shady spot to avoid the heat of the day. When the warmth of the sun began to abate a little, they would resume their journey till night overshadowed them, then they would encamp, as hungry as hunters, in some rude quarters, where they would make merry together over a simple but plentiful supper, and talk over the fatigues of the day
They had been following this sort of life for some days, when, one evening, as they were hastening towards their quarters in groups of twos, threes, and fours, my ancestor asked his friend, “ What is the name of the township where we are to sleep tonight, Hans?”
“______dorf,” answered his friend; “but we shall have to hasten in order to reach it before nightfall. Look, how the mist is rising!”
“Ah! so it is,” replied my relative, whose name was Frederick, but who was never called otherwise than “Fritz” by his companions.
Our Fritz had remained behind to enjoy the last dying glow of a gorgeous sunset, and was wrapt in meditation, while his friend Hans hurried on.
“Now then, Fritz;” cried one, Max, “don’t lag behind so; or, are your English legs not strong enough for our German mountains?”
The Englishman was stung at this taunt, implying, as it did, a disparagement of himself and countrymen, undeserved, too, as it was, for the Germans knew that he could outwalk the best of them when he chose. Yet it had the effect of making him hasten his steps a little.
The dusky hue of night fast overshadowed our students, and the mist now rose at their feet in thick clouds, so that it was with the utmost difficulty that they could find their way.
My ancestor was still a long distance behind the rest, but he was gaining fast on them, when in the darkness, he stumbled over a clump of rock and sprained his ankle. All hope of catching up his companions was now gone. The most he could do was to hobble on slowly with the help of his staff, now losing his way, now finding it, whenever the moon peeped out to light up his path, then losing it again when the moon hid itself behind a cloud, till he be began to despair of ever finding anything in the shape of a roof to shelter him from the night air during sleep, and he more than half made up his mind to encamp on the spot; but just then he felt a large drop of rain on his face, then another, and another.
It had been a broiling hot day, and the air was still sultry. Presently a vivid flash of forked lightning danced before his eyes, followed by a clap of thunder so terrific that it bid fair to burst the drum of his ear.
The storm was now overhead; the flashes grew frequent and more vivid, and the thunder growled more fiercely than ever. In a few minutes the rain poured down in torrents, and the English student was drenched to the skin.
“Here is a nice situation for a man on a pleasure trip! “muttered my ancestor to himself. “Lost in the dead of night, in the midst of a thunderstorm, in an open plain without shelter, drenched like a drowned rat, as hungry as a wolf, and hardly able to crawl, from a sprained ankle!”
His reflections were anything but pleasing, as you may imagine, yet he hobbled on as best he could, endeavouring to comfort himself with the vague hope of finding some sort of shelter for the night as soon as the storm should pass off.
After dragging on his limbs with exemplary patience for another half-mile, it being then about midnight, he perceived a light from a cottage window not very far distant. His courage began to revive, and with halting gait he made for the door of the cottage.
He knocked loudly, but no one answered. Thinking that he had not been heard for the rumbling of the thunder, he knocked again and again. Still no one came to the door.
“I mean to lodge here for the night,” said the Englishman to himself, “if I have to break the door open to effect an entrance.” And he kept up a furious knocking for about three-quarters-of-an-hour. At length he heard a harsh, grating voice within break out in a string of choice Teutonic oaths, and the word “schweinhund” (pig-dog) pronounced once or twice.
Footsteps were then heard descending the stairs, and the next moment a repulsive-looking personage appeared at the door in dressing-gown and slippers, with night-cap on head and candle in hand, who demanded in surly tone what the “teufel” he wanted at that hour of night.
My ancestor apologized with much courtesy for having roused up so worthy an individual at such an unearthly hour, but pleaded that he was a poor benighted traveler, hungry and soaked to the skin.
“Then you should have moved further on,” was the curt reply.
“But whither?” asked my relative.
“To the township. This house is not a ‘wirth shaus.’”
“How far distant is it ?”
He meant a German one—equal to four English miles.
“A mile!” exclaimed the Englishman. “I could not walk a mile to save my life. I’ve sprained my ankle and can’t move a step farther. I’m sorry to put you to such inconvenience, my good fellow, but I really must put up here.”
“But there is no accommodation,” growled the inmate.
“No matter. I dare say you have a little straw; if not, the bare ground will do.”
The inmate sulkily suffered the traveler to enter, and showing him into a parlour on the ground-floor, was about to leave him to himself.
“Stop a bit, my good host,” said the student. “I must beg to remind you that I am as hungry as a wolf, and as cold as an icicle. If you could find me something in your larder to keep soul and body together, and light me a nice little fire to dry my clothes, you will make me your friend for life.”
“Food ! Fire ! at this time of night!” exclaimed the host, with a look that seemed to say, “ Is the man mad ?”
“My dear friend,” said the Englishman, putting his hand in his pocket and passing a reichsgulden into the hand of his host, “ I do not want you to do anything for me gratis. Make me as comfortable as you can for that—on my departure I’ll give you more.”
“Oh, mein Herr!” said our host, softening at the touch of the bright metal, “that alters the case entirely. You shall have everything you want. I am sorry I haven’t another bed, but you can have some straw, and a fire to dry your clothes. I’ll go and see directly what there is in the house by way of refreshment, for you must be hungry, indeed!”
The man left the apartment, and returned shortly with some firewood and a heap of straw.
To light a fire and arrange the straw for the traveller in a corner of the room was the work of a moment. He then hurried off to get supper ready, and returned soon afterwards with a dish of sausage, some black bread, some strong cheese and a bottle of “schnaps.”
“Our fare is homely, you see, sir,” said the host, apologetically ; “but it is all we have in the house. We are poor people, and not accustomed to entertain travellers.”
“Never mind that, mine host,” said the student, “as long as there is plenty of it, we’ll excuse the quality.”
So saying, he began to strip himself and to hang his clothes before the fire. Then taking from his knapsack a clean shirt and another pair of hose, he donned his dippers, and drew his chair close to the table.
The host, after trimming and lighting a lamp, placed it in the centre of the table, and was just about to return to his bed, when the student called out with his mouth full of sausage, “What! mine host, will you not honour me with your company whilst I discuss my supper ? Company helps digestion, you know, and I’m sure you wouldn’t like to have my undigested supper on your conscience.”
The host returned with a grunt, saying that he couldn’t stop long, as he had to rise early on the morrow.
“Oh, so have I, my good friend,” said my ancestor, “so we are equal! Come, sit down here, and let me see you toss off a glass or two of this most excellent schnaps. It will keep out the cold and give you pleasant dreams, besides adding a still richer tint to that glorious nose of yours.”
My ancestor until now had hardly had time to give more than a cursory glance at the features of his host, but finding himself now at table opposite him, he took a minute survey of his countenance in all its details.
The exterior of our host was striking, to say the least. He was a man of about five-and-forty, of middle height, broad rather than tall. His neck and chest might have served as a model for the Farnese Hercules. His hair and beard, which were matted and unkempt, were of a flaming red, and he was just beginning to turn bald. His brow was low, knotted, and streaked with red. His eyebrows, which were of the same tint as his hair, were enormous, and overhung a pair of small, deep-set brown eyes that moved furtively from right to left with the rapidity of lightning, giving to his countenance a remarkably sinister expression.
His complexion was florid, and the nose, which was large and bottle-shaped, was of so bright a red that it made the eyes water to look upon it, and spoke little for its owner’s temperance. His ears, large and red, stood out at the sides of his head like those of an animal, and their orifices were carefully protected by thick tufts of red hair. The back part of his head was excessively developed, and the jaw was large and massive. His arms were very muscular, and hairy as an ape’s, with strongly-defined purple veins, and his hands, the fingers of which were short and stunted, were the colour of raw meat. The legs were somewhat short for the body, and slightly bowed.
My ancestor, as he scanned the grim features or his host, could not help imagining himself a prince in a fairy-tale who had been lured by the evil genius of the storm into the castle of some ogre, who would sooner or later devour him unless rescued by the good fairies. The ogre was not a communicative person. He had not opened his mouth once since he had taken his seat at the table, save to toss down a glass of schnaps.
The Englishman, curious to know something of the life and habits of this mysterious individual, was the first to break silence.
“You live in a very isolated spot, mine host,” said he.
“Ja,” was the laconic reply.
“Have you no nearer neighbours than those of the township?” demanded his guest.
“ Nein,” grunted the ogre.
“And do you enjoy this solitary existence?” pursued the traveler
“Ja!” was the inevitable monosyllabic response.
“I shall not get much out of him,” said my ancestor to himself, and again there was silence for the space of five minutes.
As if searching for some topic wherewith to renew the conversation, the student cast his eyes round the apartment, taking in at a glance the minutest article of furniture or other commodity that the room contained.
It was a homely, undecorated room, built after the fashion of the period, and differed little from most other apartments of the sort. If it was remarkable for anything, it was for its extreme simplicity, not to say nakedness, but there was one object hanging on the wall that at once attracted the traveller’s eye. It was a two-handed sword of peculiar shape, and appeared bright and sharp as if ready for use.
“Aha!” exclaimed the Englishman, fixing his eye on the object, “you have been a soldier, I see.”
“Not I,” said the host.
“No? Ah! I see that your sword is not of the same form as those used in battle. It is probably antique—an heirloom, perhaps?”
The man answered with a nod of the head.
“I thought so,” said the stranger; “ and yet it seems bright and well cared for. It has evidently been sharpened lately. Do you always keep it well sharpened?”
“On great occasions, yes,” was the reply, and our host gave a peculiar wink, accompanying it with a significant gesture with both hands, in imitation of wielding the two-handed instrument over his head, then, slapping his own neck, he uttered a low whistle and a sort of chuckle thus : “Wh—ew!—click!” that being his mode of expressing the action of cutting off a head.
“Ho! ho!” exclaimed the Englishmen, “is that in your line?”
The ogre answered by a savage laugh.
At this moment the crying of a child was heard overhead, together with the harsher tones of its mother scolding it.
“Then you do not live perfectly solitary, as I thought,” said the student; “you have a wife and children?”
“One boy only,” replied the man.
“Ah! An only son—a great pet, I’ll warrant,” said his guest, finishing his last morsel of supper.
“What age may he be?”
“Ten years old—fine boy—just like me—bringing him up like his father,” said the strange individual.
“If he turns out like his father, he’ll be a beauty,” thought my ancestor. Then he asked aloud of his host:
“And what profession may that be that you wish to apprentice him to?”
“Like his father,” was the curt reply; but it was followed by the same sort of expressive gesture that I have just described.
“What!” exclaimed the student, “to cut off people’s heads?”
“Yes,” replied the ruffian; “I am a Scharfrichter.”
“A what?” inquired my ancestor, who though he could make himself generally understood in German, had never yet come across the word “Scharfrichter” in his vocabulary.
“A Scharfrichter,” repeated the man, raising his voice. “Don’t you know what that means? Why, one who cuts off heads.”
“An executioner!” muttered the foreigner, half-aloud. “Have I been constrained to crave the hospitality of an executioner?”
These words were inaudible to his host, but the ruffian evidently observed a change in his guest’s countenance when he informed him of the nature of his profession, for he hastened to reply:
“One sees at once that you are a foreigner, and unused to the customs of this country. You shudder at meeting an executioner, and sicken at the thought of cutting off a head. No matter, it is always so at first. In fact, the pleasure derived from seeing executions is an acquired taste; but I’ll show you some sport to-morrow. There is to be some rare fun, down at the township at daybreak,” and the wretch gave mother wink and a chuckle. “I’ll show you how to cut off a head. One blow—click !—cuts like cheese.”
“Horrible being!” muttered my ancestor to himself in his native tongue. “Is it possible that anything human can actually revel in such brutality?” and he shuddered in spite of himself. Then he said aloud to his host—
“What was it that first gave you a taste for so horrible a profession?”
“H’m! I hardly know. I had a natural genius for it, I suppose. My father was a butcher, and I was brought up from infancy to see cattle slaughtered. At a very early age I took to slaughtering the animals myself. I seemed to take a liking to it from the very beginning. I happened to have an uncle at that time who was a Scharfrichter, and my greatest delight was to see him cut off the heads of the criminals. I began to long to do the same.”
“I was a very young man when this uncle died, and as he had no male issue to take his place, and no one else came forward, I thought I would offer my services, and they were accepted. I have been headsman of the town these thirty years, and when I die my son will step into my shoes.”
“But if he doesn’t take to it?”
“He must take to it—he’ll have to take to it.”
“Why, are there not many other professions just as inviting as that of chopping off the heads of one’s fellow-mortals ?”
“Not for the son of a headsman. I see you are ignorant of the laws of this country. Here, in Germany, the son of a headsman is bound by law to adopt the profession of his father, and should the executioner have a daughter instead of a son, in that case, the man who marries his daughter is bound to be headsman. Then the Scharfrichter is obliged to build his house a mile away from other men, for he is being hated and shunned by everyone.”
“This, then, is the reason of your solitude?”
“It is; and so far is this superstitious fear of contamination carried in this country, that your citizen considers himself defiled if by chance he has eaten out of the same plate that a headsman has once used. Accordingly all vendors of crockery have orders to knock a chip out of every earthen vessel that they sell to the headsman.”
“Dear me!” exclaimed my ancestor, “ what a peculiar custom! I never heard that before. I certainly did remark that your crockery was in a most dilapidated state, but I didn’t consider the remark worth making, although more than once in the course of the evening I felt inclined to ask you how on earth you contrived to knock out chips of such a peculiar shape by mere accident.”
“Ah!” sighed the headsman, “what between the crockery-seller and---”
Here he put his finger to his lip and looked round the room suspiciously.
“What is the matter?” asked the student.
“Hush!” said the headsman, “it isn’t always safe to talk of mischievous people—they are apt to appear. You know the saying, ‘Talk of the devil.’ ”
“Well,” said my ancestor, “ but what has that to do with your broken crockery?”
“Hush!” answered his host, looking round him half-timidly; then he whispered, “I have a certain mischievous lodger that does my crockery more harm than either the seller or my boy upstairs when he’s fractious.”
“Ah!” exclaimed the traveler in surprise, “you have a lodger in your house?”
“Ay !—a lodger who never pays his rent, and who drives me to my wit’s end by shying my crockery at my head. Look here, what a cut he gave my wrist once in one of his pranks. I shall bear this mark to my grave.” So saying, he bared his wrist and displayed what had been a deep, livid wound, long since healed, but which had left behind a scar which nothing could efface.
“An ugly cut, to be sure,” remarked the Englishman. “ But why on earth do you not get rid of so playful a lodger?”
“Get rid of him! I only wish to the devil I could. He comes here uninvited, and--but let us not talk of him, or he may pay us another of his pleasant visits, when you will be able to make his acquaintance. He never stands upon ceremony, but comes just whenever he likes. He may be in room now, for what I know. I shall be off to bed.”
My ancestor gazed round the room, vainly endeavouring to discover in some hidden nook the object of his host’s terror, when, marvelous to relate! a dish on the top shelf was pitched, as if by some invisible and, from its post, and shattered into pieces against the opposite wall, nearly hitting him on the head as it passed.
The traveler stared first at the shelf, then at his host, and turned pale.
“Good Heavens!” he cried. “What was that?”
“What was it ? Ay ! You may well ask what it is,” answered his host, peevishly. “What in the devil’s name should it be but that pest of a ‘Poltergeist’ again. I told you you would make his acquaintance ere long.”
“A what ?—a ‘Poltergeist ?’”
“Ay, Poltergeist—a malignant spirit, whose chief delight seems to be to strike terror into the house of a poor honest headsman, and smash all the crockery that he has to pay for out of his hard-earned wages.”
“Holy Virgin!” ejaculated my ancestor, crossing himself (for he was a good Catholic). “A malignant spirit! Saints protect us!”
But the words were hardly out of his mouth, when crash! went another plate upon the floor, just grazing his host’s red head as it passed.
“Oh! come now, my fine fellow,” said our host, in a tone of mild remonstrance; “a little of that goes a long way.”
Then turning to his guest he remarked :
“I wonder why he honours me especially with his visits, and not other people. I shouldn’t wonder if he is someone that I have had the honour of decapitating, and he comes to pay me an occasional visit in order to impress upon me that he hasn’t forgotten the little service I did him.”
A large, pointed knife that lay peacefully on the table was then suddenly and powerfully thrown from the traveller’s side, and remained with the point sticking in the panel of the door opposite.
“Ho! Ho!” cried the headsman; “ this is getting warm work. Now, my good friend, do let me entreat you to be more moderate in your manifestations, and if you are quiet, tomorrow I will send you a companion.”
This promise, so far from quieting our spiritual guest, seemed to infuriate him more than ever, for the bottle of schnaps, more than half-full, was now raised in the air and dashed to pieces on the table, the candle being overturned at the same time, and falling flame downwards on to the spirit spilled on the table, it ignited, and in a moment everything was in a blaze.
“Fire! Fire!” cried the headsman in a voice that roused up his wife and child, who came tumbling downstairs in no time, to learn what was the matter.
There is no knowing what mischief might not have taken place had not my ancestor, with great presence of mind, snatched up his damp clothes from before the fire and succeeded in extinguishing the flame.
“What is the matter, Franz ?” exclaimed our host’s better half, appearing at the door just as matters were being set to rights again.
“Oh, nothing,” said her fond spouse, “only that d–––––d Poltergeist again, who seems bent upon burning us all in our beds before he has done.”
“Hush!” said his wife, “don’t swear, or he may do as you say in real earnest. Come to bed now, or tomorrow you won’t be able to get up in time. Remember—”
“Ah, true; I must have my night’s rest, as it would not do for my hand to tremble when I mount the scaffold. Gute nacht, mein Herr.”
And our worthy host followed his partner out of the room, leaving my ancestor to his reflections.
“Well,” soliloquized my relative, “of all the strange adventures that ever occurred to me, this beats all. Oh, there is not the slightest doubt that what I have just witnessed is the work of the infernal powers—some diabolical agency!”
“When I see a knife jump up from the table by itself without anyone near, and deliberately fix itself in the panel of the door before my very eyes; when I see a bottle of spirit overturned and broken in pieces, and then a candle after that knocked over as if on purpose to ignite the spirit; moreover, when I see plates and dishes hurled from one end of the room to the other, and apparently aimed at people’s heads, and the perpetrator of such pranks having the power of making himself invisible to the naked eye, then, I say, this is not done through human agency, but by superhuman! and, as it is not an angelic mode of proceeding, it must be the reverse.”
My ancestor shuddered and crossed himself. The manifestations, however, had ceased for the night, and in five minutes our weary traveler was fast asleep.
His dreams that night were not of the pleasantest. He imagined that he mounted the scaffold with a crowd of eager eyes gazing at him, amongst whom were his friends and traveling companions. His host the Scharfrichter, stood brandishing his terrible two-handed sword, and in another moment his head would have been off; but at the critical time the dream changed, and he was being pelted with crockery in the midst of a cemetery at night by innumerable sheeted “poltergeister.”
These, and similar visions were flitting before his brain, when a loud thump at the door brought him back to earth again. There was the Scharfrichter before him, not in dressing gown and slippers, as on the previous evening, but attired in doublet and hose of a blood red colour, and a black bèret with scarlet jock’s feather on his head.
“Now then, mein Herr,” said the headsman, taking down his fearful instrument from the wall, “time’s up.”
My ancestor, only just awake, rubbed his eyes, and imagined that he was really and truly called away to execution, and that his last hour had come.
The executioner, seeing that he hesitated, added:
“If you want to witness the cunning of my hand, now’s your time.”
My relation gave a sigh of relief when he began to recollect that his own head was quite safe and that he was only called upon to witness the execution of another man.
“But I can’t go; I have sprained my ankle,” pleaded the Englishman.
“Oh, I don’t intend to walk myself,” replied the executioner. “I have my horse and cart ready, and can give you a lift.”
“Oh, if that’s the case,” said the student, “I shall be glad to go, as I wish to meet my friends in the township!”
“Come on, then,” and the headsman assisted the Englishman into the cart.
As they were about starting, a little red-haired ruffian of some ten years, stout and well-built, and bearing a striking likeness to our host, appeared on the threshold.
“Papa, you’ll bring me home a football, won’t you ?” said the youth.
“Ay, my boy, that will I, a good sized one,” answered his father
“That’s your son?” asked the student of his host.
“Aye, a fine little fellow. Here, my little man,” said he to the child, and slipping a small coin into his fat fist, he patted him on the cheek and stepped into the cart.
“Ah, he’s a fine boy,” said our host with a paternal pride, as he whipped on his horse. “There is nothing of the milksop about him. He’s not afraid of the devil himself.”
“You do well to be proud of him. I’ll warrant you’ll buy him many a pretty toy,” observed the Englishman.
“Buy him toys!” exclaimed the headsman, laughing. “As long as I bring him home a football now and then, he is quite content.” And he laughed again.
“Well, that is a toy, isn’t it ?” said the student, not as yet comprehending the headsman’s meaning.
“Yes, a toy that costs me nothing, and gives him no end of amusement. You should see how he kicks the heads about that I bring him home. It’s quite a pleasure to see the youngster enjoy himself in his innocent way.”
“You do not mean to say,” said the Englishman, in horror, “that the football you promised him is to be a human head!”
“Aye, to be sure,” replied the Scharfrichter, “What else should it be ? What kicks he’ll give it to be sure! Ha! ha! ha! that’s the way to bring up boys; makes them hardy. He’s not afraid of a little blood. Talk of his not taking a liking to my business! Why he’s always saying to me, “Papa, when I am big enough to wield your sword, you’ll let me cut off heads, won’t you?”
“Humph,” muttered my ancestor, and he remained silent for some minutes, absorbed in meditation.
The headsman whipped on his horse in silence; at length he said to his guest: “Here we are at last. Look at yon crowd waiting to receive us.”
Frederick lifted his head, and sure enough there was the mound of earth, erected for the criminal, already surrounded by soldiers, close to which thronged he crowd. All the inhabitants of ____dorf were astir, and in the crowd our Englishman now recognised his fellow students. A cry of “Der henker! der henker!”** arose on all sides. Room was at once made for the headsman and his companion, and Fritz’s fellow-students, seeing their friend arrive in a henker’s cart, pushed their way through the crowd to ask him all sorts of questions.
Fritz descended with difficulty, after paying his host for his board and lodging, and joined his companions. In a few minutes more the criminals’s cart arrived with the “armer sünder’’ or poor sinner, accompanied by two priests. Loud execrations broke from the mob, amidst which the wretched being descended from the cart and mounted the scaffold. A dead silence reigned around. One of the priests whispered something earnestly in the ear of the condemned, who was as pale as death, and he took his seat on the chair prepared for him, while an expression of savage delight appeared on the countenance of the headsman.
He felt that all eyes were upon him. The terrible two-handed weapon was raised aloft, and brandished over the henker’s head. One blow and the head of the unhappy wretch was severed from his body. Loud cheering rent the air as the Scharfrichter, holding the bead of the criminal by the hair, presented it to the public gaze.
The crowd soon after this began to disperse, and my ancestor, leaning on the arm of a friend, also retired from the scene, disgusted with himself at having been present at such a spectacle. Before leaving the spot he had time to notice his host of the previous night start off in his cart towards home with the promised football.
Our English student was laid up for some little time with his sprained ankle, and some of his companions remained behind to keep him company, while the others moved onward.
The ankle being cured, Frederick continued his tour with his friends, and afterwards returned to the university, where he studied hard till the time came round for an examination, which he passed, and shortly afterwards returned to England.
We hear nothing more of my ancestor until ten or twelve years afterwards, when we again find him in Germany, whither he had been suddenly called to visit some relative, then in a dying state. He arrived just in time to close his eyes, after which he saw him quietly interred in his last home.
This sad office over, he was thinking of returning to England, when, in turning over the articles of his travelling trunk, he suddenly came across a German book belonging to a college friend of his, one Ludwig Engstein, that had been lent him when at the university, and which he had forgotten to return before leaving college. His friend used to live, he remembered, in Weimar, and that town not being far distant he resolved to visit it, and find out his friend’s home.
Many changes take place in twelve years, and my ancestor only half expected to meet his fellow-student again. He might have changed his residence—he might be dead. Who could tell what might not have happened to him after so long a lapse of time?
Nevertheless, the Englishman, finding himself on German soil once more, resolve to enquire after the friend of his youth, and should he succeed in discovering him, to put him in possession of his book, and chat with him over their student days.
Accordingly, he set off for the town of Weimar, and having arrived there, proceeded with the volume under his arm to the house of his friend. He had once, when a student, spent a fortnight at his house, and had known his mother and sisters intimately; therefore, he had no difficulty in finding the place again.
Weimar had changed but little during these ten or twelve years, and once more he found himself on the old familiar door-step.
“Ist der Herr Advocat Engstein zu House?” he demanded of an old woman who answered the door.
“Ja, mein Herr,” replied the crone. “What name shall I give?”
“Oh, never mind announcing me,” said the Englishman; “I’ll announce myself.”
So saying, he pushed past the old woman, and knocked at his friend’s study.
“Herein!” called out a voice from within, which my ancestor had no difficulty in recognizing as his friend’s, and the Englishman entered.
Ludwig Engstein was seated at a table strewed with papers and documents, and was busily writing. He was still young looking, but his friend Fritz noticed that his face had assumed a more thoughtful expression than when at the university. He was now a lawyer in good practice, and at the moment his friend entered he was so busy that he did not not even raise his head.
“I am sorry to disturb you, Herr Advocat,” said Fritz, suddenly, “but I’ve come to return a book you lent me some time back.”
And placing the book on the table, he marched straight out of the room, shutting the door after him. He then peeped through the key-hole and listened awhile to note the effect of his abrupt departure on his friend.
The young lawyer’s ear caught his friend’s English accent, and he at once lifted his head, though not in time to catch a glimpse of his retreating figure.
I have said that Engstein recognised Fritz’s accent as English, but little did he suspect that it was his old college friend who had called upon him and left so suddenly.
He looked surprised, took up the book upon the table to look at the title, and muttered to himself, “Who can it have been? I do not recollect now to whom I lent it, but it must have been a long while ago.”
He was about to ring the bell, and rose for that purpose when he noticed a face peeping at him through the opening of the door, which was now ajar.
“Who’s that? Come in!” cried the lawyer.
“You are busy, Herr advocate—another time.”
“Ich empfähle mich Ihnen,” said my relative, closing the door slowly after him.
But this time Ludwig had a better view of the Englishman’s face.
“Potztausend!” exclaimed the lawyer; “I should know that face. Ach! lieber freund Fritz. Can it be really you? Nein was für ein angenehme Ueberaschung!” he cried, rushing forward and throwing the door wide open while he kissed his friend forcibly on both cheeks.
“Sit down here and tell me to what fortuitous and never-to-be-expected train of circumstances I am indebted for this friendly and to me most agreeable and blissful-past-days-recalling visit.”
Fritz then went on to relate the circumstances of his relative’s death, and how he had been called from home to attend him in his last moments.
“I am sorry for the death of your relation,” said Ludwig, “but I cannot sufficiently express my extreme joy at seeing my old friend Fritz again after so many years! Ha! ha! ha!” he laughed, partly from delight at meeting his friend, and partly at his friend’s mode of introducing himself.
“What an eccentric and of you and your strange countrymen-characteristic way of saluting your old friend after so long!”
And the German again laughed heartily.
“And what a busy and for-ever-with-documents-and-papers-occupied-German business man, not even to notice his swiftly entering, and though long departed from German soil, speedily-vanishing and almost-forgotten English friend!” retorted Fritz, mimicking the high-flown, wordy phraseology of the German.
“No, on my honour, Fritz,” replied his friend; “not forgotten, I assure you. Do you know that I had a dream of you only last night. It never struck me till now.”
“It is strange that I should have dreamed of you just the night before your unexpected and to me most grateful arrival. How strange it is that our dreams often prognosticate coming events! It is as if the mind, partly freed from its material covering during sleep, received the power of peering with greater accuracy into that to-us-in-our-waking-state-obscure and unfathomable future which___”
“Precisely; I understand you,” answered my relative, cutting short his friend’s philosophic remark; “but let us talk a little over old times; that is if you are at leisure.”
“Yes, to be sure,” answered the lawyer; “what I am doing now has no need of hurry. Oh, by the way, Fritz, talking of old times, do you remember the night you spent at the house of old Franz Wensel the Scharfrichter?”
“If I remember? Shall I ever forget it?” answered my ancestor.
“It seems to me only yesterday that I was present at that execution; and then that Poltergeist—it is as if I had witnessed his pranks only last night. I can remember the minutest incident that happened on that unhallowed evening.”
“Well,” resumed the lawyer, “poor old Franz is no more.”
“Ay, murdered. Horrible to relate, his body was discovered minus the head, which has been carried off or hidden somewhere, for it hasn’t been found yet! but his son recognized the body by the clothes, besides Franz has never returned home since, so it must be he. There appears to be a mystery about it, however. The murderer has not as yet been discovered, neither can people guess at what prompted the murderer to take the life of a man who was never over-burdened with money. Then the head was cut off without care being taken to bury the body; and all, too, within a few steps of the henker’s own house. What could have been the murderer’s object in carrying off the head?”
“A mere act of spite, I suppose,” replied the Englishman.
“Well, it may be so,” replied his friend, “for it seems that his life had been often threatened by the friends and relations of those he had beheaded. It may be, as you say, out of spite. The murderer may, by way of wreaking his vengeance, have cut off the head of the man, who had put some friend or relation to death, as a trophy! but why just at this moment? Why not before, as there has been no execution in the town lately? I believe there has been none since that execution we two witnessed together. If the avenger had made up his mind to avenge his friend, why did he not do so at once, instead of waiting these twelve years?”
“It may be some other private quarrel,” replied Fritz. “Are you interested in it?”
“Yes, I shall be at the trial.”
“It happened recently it would seem.”
“Only two days ago.”
“Then the body is still fresh—of course it has been exposed and examined?”
“Yes, but it was recognized at once by the family. I dare say it is buried by this time. I am going there tomorrow. If you have time, my friend, I should be most glad of your company.”
“Well, I don’t mind giving you a day or so, as I am taking a holiday.”
“Agreed, then; we start to-morrow.”
The two friends then discoursed until dinner-time, when Ludwig invited Fritz to share his meal.
The Englishman accepted the offer, and they chatted and laughed the time away till the evening.
Ludwig lived quite alone. His sisters had married, his mother was dead. He was still a bachelor, and so was my ancestor at this time.
“You have not yet put your neck under the yoke it appears,” said my relative to his friend, in allusion to the conjugal tie.
“Not I,” replied his friend. “At least, not yet.”
“I understand,” said Fritz; “not married, but verlobt.”
“No, nor that either.”
“No? Verliebt, then, perhaps.”
“No, neither ‘verlobt’ nor ‘verliebt.’”
“What!” exclaimed the Englishman, “not even that! Nevertheless, if I remember rightly, the student Ludwig Engstein was not once averse to the fair sex.”
“Oh, recall not the follies of the past, my friend, or I may retaliate!” answered the German.
“True, true,” said the Englishman. “We all have our weaknesses, and youth is the season in which they mostly flourish, but now we have both grown into sober-minded Philister,*** and are more wary.”
“Yes, yes,” rejoined his friend; “we are not to be caught now by a pair of blue eyes, flaxen tresses, and a jimp waist, however well these charms may be set off with the allurements of dress. When men get to our advanced age, they want ‘geist,’ and look out for a good housewife who can cook them a dish of ‘sauer kraut’ or a ‘pfankuchen’ when ‘das moos’**** is wanting, which is another very useful accessory we desire to have thrown in.”
Here he made a significant gesture with his finger and thumb, intended to express the counting of money.
“I hope, my friend, you have not become so worldly as to look upon marriage in the light of bettering yourself,” said my relative.
“Ach! lieber freund,” replied Ludwig. “It is all very well for you rich milords who have ‘lowen’***** to talk in that style, but we ‘armen teufel’ are bound to take even that into consideration.
“This is what the world makes of noble fellows when it has once got them in its grasp!” sighed my ancestor to himself, and he hastened to change the conversation.
They then discoursed on various other topics, sitting up to a late hour of night, until wearied with incessant talking, each retired to rest.
Early the next morning they started on their journey; and reached _____dorf towards evening, and having fixed their quarters at the very same inn they had put up at on their memorable tour, they beguiled the time until the morrow by discoursing with the townspeople about the mysterious murder.
The body, it seems, was not yet underground, but was to be buried the next day. They accordingly both resolved to examine it.
“The head has not been found yet?” asked Ludwig, after supper of the landlord of the inn, who had me in for a gossip.
“No, sir, not yet,” replied their host. “Ah, there are some strange rumours in the town about that same murder.”
“Indeed !” cried Fritz ; “what do the people say?”
“Some say one thing, and some another, but all seem to agree that there is something supernatural about the murder of the henker.”
“Something supernatural! Why—what reason have they to jump to that conclusion?”
“Well, sir, I don’t know if you have ever heard of the henker’s Poltergeist, but it is a fact well known to all in the township.”
“Yes, yes—even we know it; in fact—but never mind, proceed.”
“Well, gentlemen, this Poltergeist—this evil spirit —that no doubt was permitted to haunt the headsman for his sins—for a headsman must of necessity be a cruel, hard-hearted, unnatural villain to choose such a profession.”
“ Well, well—this evil spirit—”
“Well, then, the Scharfrichter, at least, so people say, had sold his soul to this demon, and when the time came round for him to give up his soul according to the bargain, he refused, and the demon wrested it from him by force by cutting off his head and carrying it away with him.”
“Oh, but why this strange supposition? Why put down a thing to supernatural agency before sufficient time has elapsed to investigate the matter properly? A person is murdered, and the body discovered without the head, and because the head cannot be found at once, you say that the devil has run off with it. My dear sir, the thing’s absurd.”
“Well, we must wait and see what evidence will turn up,” said the host.
“Yes, but if everybody merely waits for evidence to turn up instead of actively searching for it, the latter will come to a standstill,” said the Englishman. “I myself am interested in the murder, as I knew the Scharfrichter twelve years ago, when I was a student.”
“Ah, in that case, sir—of course you would. By-the-by, there is another murder now talked about besides the henker’s. They seem to be getting in fashion.”
“What! another body?”
“Well, sir, the body isn’t exactly found yet, but there is a certain Count, well-known to be rich, who was taking a walking tour through the country alone. His family expected him home on a certain day, and as he hasn’t arrived yet, they suspect that he has been robbed and murdered.”
“That may be merely a suspicion. How long has he been missing?”
“Three days, they say.”
“Three days ! Why a man doesn’t bind himself to a day or two when out on a tour. He may remain another three days, or a week longer, and then return unhurt.”
“Well sir it may be as you say, but as the Count was known by his relations to be a very punctual man, and never to fail in his appointments, you see, it is natural that they should feel uneasy.”
“True, especially as three days ago was about the time of the other murder, and they may get it into their heads that the two murders occurred in the same night. Was he a married man?”
“No, sir; quite young, they say.”
“Humph! When did you say the body of the henker would be buried—to-morrow?”
“About ten, I think, sir.”
“Ah I then I must be there early, as I want to examine the corpse myself.”
“Oh, decidedly, sir! I will bring you to the place to-morrow in good time.”
Our friends now felt inclined for their night’s rest, so their host showed them into a room with two beds, and wishing them a good night, left them to undress, and before many minutes had passed both were sound asleep.
Early the following morning they both, in the company of their host, started from the inn to visit the corpse of the murdered executioner. As they entered the hall where the body lay exposed, Fritz instantly recognized the clothes; if not the identical vestments worn by the defunct twelve years ago, they were at least, of the same colour and material, being, as I have said before, a crimson doublet and hose.
“Yes,” said Fritz; “ these are the henker’s clothes, I’ve no doubt.”
Then, after examining the form laid out before him, he was observed to start slightly, and he added in a whisper to his friend: “Ludwig, this is not the body of Franz Wenzel—I’ll take my oath of that.”
“How! Not Franz Wenzel! Who else should it be, then?”
“That I am not prepared to say, but it is not the body of the henker; that is certain. Remember that I passed a night at Wenzel’s house; during that time I took note of the features and figure of the Scharfrichter, and though twelve years have passed since I saw him, I can swear—”
“But how! His own family have recognized him. What further proof would you have?”
Then addressing the landlord, Ludwig said: “Is it true, landlord, that his own family have recognized the body?”
“Yes, sir; at least, the son did. I don’t know whether his wife did or not, as she has been laid up for ever so long with paralysis, poor soul. It may be she was never been informed of the murder. One does not like to frighten invalids, you know.”
“Well, well—enough if the corpse has been recognised by the son.”
“Yes, sir, he recognized it. It is true, he was a little the worse for liquor when they brought him before the corpse of his father; but when is he otherwise, for the matter of that? As sad a young dog as ever lived that same—inherits all the vices of his father. Nevertheless, who is there in the township that does not recognise the henker’s red legs?”
“You see, therefore, my friend,” said Ludwig, turning to his companion, “that you are mistaken. Everybody recognizes him.”
“I see nothing of the sort,” replied the Englishman, doggedly; “and I am still prepared to swear that the corpse before us is not that of Franz Wenzel.”
“My dear Fritz,” said Engstein,” you are obstinate. What reason can you possibly have for saying so?”
“Observe the hands of the corpse,” said Fritz in a low tone. “Do they look like the hands of an executioner? They are long and delicate. Those of Franz Wenzel were hard, rough and hairy, with square stunted fingers; besides, the headsman wore no ring. His hand, though no ring is visible, has a depression on the forefinger, as if the owner were in the constant habit of wearing one.”
“Ha! say you so?” exclaimed his friend, and a strange expression came over his face.
“Then,” pursued Fritz, “observe the clothes. Do they look as if they were made for the body? Franz Wenzel had enormously developed calves, and his hose fitted tightly. Do these hose fit tightly? Look at these limbs, compared with the Henker’s they are but those of a boy.”
“Humph! I believe you are right, Fritz, after all,” said Engstein; “but it never would have struck me if you had not pointed it out, as it is so long ago since I set eyes upon him, and then only for a moment. You took a more complete survey of him, and your evidence may prove useful. We will look into the matter together. It is strange, however, that no one should have been struck in the same manner as yourself.”
“Well I don’t know,” responded Fritz. “The people in these small villages are not always of the brightest. Then the headsman’s house being so far way from the town, few people had the opportunity of taking a minute survey of him, and they content themselves with recognizing the clothes. Franz’s wife is laid up with paralysis, and has not seen the body, while his son only recognized it when in a drunken state. Do you call that sufficient evidence to prove that the corpse before us is that of the executioner? Would you like another proof that this is no more Franz Wenzel than I am?”
“Well,” said Ludwig.
“I remember a scar upon the right wrist that he showed me the night I put up at his house,” said the Englishman;” and which he told me had been inflicted on him by a piece of broken plate hurled at him by his Poltergeist. I remember that he said he should carry that mark with him to the grave. If this is the corpse of Franz Wenzel we shall not fail to discover the mark.”
So saying, he bared the right arm of the corpse and examined it carefully. No such mark was to be found. The arm was free from scar or brand, and was delicate in form, almost like that of a maiden’s. Moreover, here was a scanty covering of dark hair upon it, while that on the arms of the executioner, if the reader remembers rightly, was red and profuse. Even Engstein remarked this, and was now convinced beyond a doubt that the murdered man was not Franz Wenzel.
“Is any search being made now for the head of the corpse?” demanded Engstein of his host, who had withdrawn some paces from the two friends, and consequently had not heard the doubt that had been suddenly cast upon the correctness of public opinion.
“No active search, I believe, sir,” was the reply.
“We will make the search ourselves, my friend,” whispered Engstein to Fritz; then added to his host, “My friend and I will take a stroll together. It is uncertain when we shall return to the inn, but get something savoury for us in the meantime,” and he waved his hand towards his host, who doffed his cap and walked towards his inn, while our two friends set off together in the direction of the henker’s house, which they reached in about an hour.
“Yes,” said Fritz, “this is the place. I remember it well. What did our host tell us? That the murder took place only a few paces from the headsman’s door. Let us look well round the spot. How solitary it is! Just the place where a murder would be committed. What do you say to yon hollow flanked with brushwood, Ludwig? Is it not a likely place for a murderer to await his victim?”
“You are right, Fritz, let us make a strict search, but if the head has been carried far distant---”
“Let us, nevertheless, search well here first,” said my ancestor, and the two friends set to work at once, lifting up every bush and bramble, following every track, until finally they came upon some blood-stains.
They discovered an old dried-up well not far from this spot. Common sense would have suggested this as a likely place for the concealment of the missing head, and there is no doubt that the same idea struck the inhabitants of ______dorf, for there were evident traces of a great number of feet in the sand round about it; besides which there was a chip recently made in the brickwork, which appeared caused by the letting down of a rope or chain.
This seemed evidence enough for our two friends to prove that the well had already been searched, and without effect. Further search in that direction appeared to them to be useless, especially as no bloodstains were to be found near.
They then proceeded to examine more closely than ever the bushes around, stamping on the ground to ascertain if a hole had recently been made, but the ground was firm, and there was nothing to attract suspicion save a few blood-stains, which instead of leading up to the well as one would have imagined, led up to the foot of an old chestnut-tree, and there seemed to end.
On examining the bark of the tree attentively they observed blood also on the trunk, but this might have been occasioned by the splashing of the blood from the neck after the decapitation of the head. There was no hollow visible in the tree where suspicion would lead one to suppose that the head could be concealed ; nevertheless, when men make up their minds to make a rigid search, they often pry into the most unlikely and impossible places, so our friends determined to ascend the tree to ascertain if by any chance the head could have been lodged between its leafy branches.
Previous to mounting, Ludwig, who, together with his friend, had provided himself with a long branch therewith to beat down the bushes, struck the chestnut-tree a blow on the trunk with it, when a hollow sound proceeded from the tree, and instantly a large owl fluttered out from the foliage before their faces with its beak and plumage stained with blood. Blinded with the sunlight, it hovered distractedly hither and thither for a time, and then vanished with a screech.
“Did you notice the beak and feathers of the bird, Ludwig?” asked Fritz.
“I did,” said Ludwig, “and what is more, I am convinced that the whole of this seemingly robust chestnut-tree is hollow, and I have not a doubt that the murderer, aware of the fact, has hidden the head of his victim at the bottom, and that this fell bird has been gorging itself and its young upon it ever since.”
“That is just my opinion,” said Fritz. “Let us climb the tree and look within.”
My ancestor was the first to mount, and having arrived at the point where the trunk divides itself into branches, he discovered a large hole thickly covered over with leaves. Sitting upon the edge, with his legs dangling within the hollow trunk, he proceeded to strike a light, and having ignited a taper, he commenced carefully to descend into the hollow of the tree. In his descent, however, his foot slipped, his taper extinguished itself, and he came down rather suddenly upon his feet. He soon became aware from a feeble smothered cry that he was treading upon a nest of young owlets.
He began to dread lest he might encounter some venemous reptile in this unexplored region, but taking courage he struck another light and searched about. He had not looked long when he discovered what appeared to be a human scalp. He grasped it firmly by the hair, and by the light of his taper soon knew it to be in reality the head of a man, a part of which had been already eaten away to the bone
“Eureka!” exclaimed Fritz, “I have it.”
His friend uttered an exclamation of delight, while my relative clambered up again, and the two friends examined the disgusting object under the fair light of day.
“You see the hair is black,” said Fritz. “I hope you are satisfied now that this is not the head of the Scharfrichter.”
“There is no doubt about that, I think,” said Ludwig. “And do you know, Fritz, now that I scan these features, they seem familiar to me as my own in the looking-glass, Himmel! Can it be possible!”
“What?” demanded my ancestor, anxiously.
“Why, I’ll swear that this is no other than my old friend and fellow-student, the Count of Waffenburg!” exclaimed Engstein.
“What! Graf von Waffenberg! Is it really so? I knew him well. Let me examine the features,” said Fritz.
“Yes, it is he beyond a doubt,” said Ludwig. “We had a quarrel once, and I wounded him in the cheek. Here is the wound I myself inflicted; but afterwards we became staunch friends.”
“True,” said Fritz. “I remember the duel well, being present myself on the occasion. What a curious coincidence! It is certainly he, and no other. The more I look at the features the more satisfied I am. Let us hasten with this proof of the identity of the murdered man to the township and spread abroad the news of the murder of the count. His relations will then come to claim his body.”
The two friends then made a covering of chestnut leaves for the head, and tying it up in handkerchief, retraced their steps towards the township, discoursing on the cunning of the murderer, who appeared to them to be no other than the Scharfrichter himself.
“For when a body is found minus the head,” argued Ludwig, “and dressed in the clothes of another man, and that other man is nowhere to be found, it follows most as a matter of course that the man missing must be the murderer.”
“Yes,” said the Englishman, “unless the murdered man had previously stolen the clothes of another, and then afterwards been murdered by some unknown assassin.”
“But when the deceased can be proved beyond a doubt to be the Graf von Waffenberg, a man whose name is above so ridiculous a suspicion,” said Engstein, “such an idea is absurd.”
“Oh of course the blackest suspicion attaches itself to Wenzel,” said Fritz; “yet, in the case of a mysterious murder, evidence, occasionally of so startling and unexpected a nature, turns up as to completely alter the aspect of the case.”
“The headsman is missing, and a corpse has been found dressed in his clothes. We presume, therefore, that he is the murderer, but if after a time the henker’s corpse should also be found---”
“Oh, in that case,” said Ludwig, “the aspect of the whole affair would be changed! Well, we must wait for further evidence. To-morrow the case will begin in court, and my services will be required. I doubt not before long that sufficient light will be thrown on the subject to enable us to discover the real murderer.”
Thus our two friends chatted by the way, till in due time they arrived at the township, and having deposited the head of the murdered man at the town hall, where the body had been exposed, they spread abroad the result of their expedition, which clearly proved to the somewhat obtuse inhabitants their error.
On the following morning the trial began. The court was crowded to suffocation. Evidence of a very extraordinary nature had turned up, so it was said, and Ludwig Engstein, attired in his professional robes, was preparing to conduct the case.
My ancestor was amongst the crowd, and had placed himself as near as he possibly could to his friend.
“Call in Gottilieb Kräger,” cried the examiner.
A hoary peasant entered the witness-box, and the examination proceeded in this wise:
“You are a farmer from the village of _____, are you not?”
“Just inform us, if you please, what you were doing on the night of the murder.”
“I was returning home after selling some cattle at the ____dorf market, and it was about midnight when I passed close to the henker’s cottage. I heard cries and groans as of someone being murdered not far off. I stopped and listened for a moment, then set off on tiptoe to the spot from whence the sounds proceeded. It was very dark, and the groans at length ceased.”
“I placed myself behind some brushwood to watch who should issue from the copse, when a friar passed me.”
“Stay, are you quite sure the friar came from the very spot from whence you heard the groans?”
“Well, as to swearing to it, I don’t know, but I heard the sound as of brushwood being trampled under foot, and the next instant the friar passed close to me. He did not appear to observe me, but moved onward in the direction of the village of Ahlden.”
“Did you follow him, or take any further notice of him?”
“To say the truth, I was too frightened to move, but I kept my eye on him as far as I could see.”
“But you tell me it was very dark.”
“Just at that moment the moon had burst from behind the clouds, and enabled me to see distinctly.”
“Well, did you observe anything peculiar in the manner or gait of the friar?”
“Yes; after he had passed me some ten paces he halted, as if he were counting money, after which he threw away something that glittered in the moonlight and then walked on. I followed stealthily behind to discover what it was that he had thrown away, and picked up this.”
The witness held up a long silk purse knitted with silver beads.
“Give it to me—so—can you recollect anything else about this friar? Did you manage to catch a glimpse of his face?”
“ No, I could not exactly distinguish the features, but_____”
“I observed a peculiar patch in his amice over the left shoulder.”
“Should you be able to swear to the amice?”
“Aye, that I should, among a thousand.”
“Is this the amice of the friar you saw issue from the copse?” asked Ludwig, holding up a patched amice such as is worn by the Capuchin friars.”
“The very same! I’ll swear to it.”
“Take care, you are on your oath.”
“Well, if it is not the same, it is one made after the same fashion, patch and all complete. I’ll swear to the shape of the patch, for I observed the garment well.”
“Enough; you may retire. Call in Hans Schultz.”
A dapper little man with oiled hair and closely-shaven face entered the court, and having taken his post at the witness-box, gave his evidence as follows :—
“I am by profession a barber. The morning after the murder I was shaving an elderly gentleman in my shop. I suggested that a little hair-dye would improve his personal appearance, and offered him a bottle. He refused to buy it, so I placed it on a table behind me, and continued to shave him. Whilst I was recommending the hair-dye to my customer I noticed a Capuchin friar pass several times in front of my shop. He appeared to be listening to our conversation.
“Shortly afterwards he entered the shop and begged for alms for the convent. I gave him a creuzer, and after he had chatted a little he left. I could not see his face well, as he kept it covered with his hood, but I remember that he had a red beard. He had hardly left my shop when on looking on the table behind me I found the bottle of hair-dye gone. No one else but the friar and my customer had entered the shop since I laid the bottle down upon the table, yet I could not suspect my customer of having stolen the bottle, and I was much at a loss to conceive what a Capuchin friar should want with hair dye.
“I concluded, therefore, that I must have been mistaken, and must have laid the bottle down somewhere else without thinking, so I thought no more of it.”
“On the same day I was called to cut the hair of a gentleman at the other end of the village, when I passed a friar who appeared to be the same man as he who not long ago had entered my shop. I looked him in the face, but he had a black beard. I could have sworn it was the same, for his amice was patched in a peculiar manner on the shoulder, like that of the first friar.”
“Is this the amice that the friar wore?” asked Engstein, holding up the patched garment.
“It is like it. I could all but swear to it.”
“Did you address him when you met him, as you bought, a second time?”
“I was about to do so, but he pulled out his beads, and began counting them. Not liking to disturb him in his devotions, I passed on, thinking that after all I might have been deceived.”
“That is sufficient, you may go.”
The little barber left the court, and another witness was called for.
“ Max Offenbrunnen.”
“ I am host of the ‘Bear Inn’ in the village of M_______”
“Can you tell us anything that happened at your inn within this last week?”
“Yes; three days after the murder a Capuchin friar stopped at my inn and called for a tankard of beer. He kept his hood down all the time, so that I could not see his face, but I remember that he had black beard, and I also noticed that he had a patch in his amice over one shoulder of rather an unusual form.”
The patched garment was held up again in court, and recognized also by the third witness, after which he proceeded as follows: —
“He called for more beer, and I began to enter into conversation with him and asked him where he came from. He told me from a Capuchin convent at W______, about a mile off. Just at that moment another friar, an old friend of mine, passed my inn, who belonged to the aforementioned convent.
“ ‘Then you know each other,’ said I to my friend the second friar, and I sought to bring them together, but my friend, after eyeing the other from head to foot, denied all knowledge of him. The first friar then somewhat confusedly stammered an excuse, saying that he had spoken without thinking, but that he had intended to say St. Mary’s, another Capuchin convent, six miles farther off. Then my friend the second friar said that he knew all the friars at St. Mary’s, but denied that he knew this one.”
“The former began to mumble that he had only lately arrived, and began to turn the conversation. My friend whispered to me that he didn’t believe he was a friar at all, but someone in disguise. After my friend had left, the other friar called for more beer (I never saw a friar drink so much beer as this one), and being curious to discover who the man was I tried to draw him out. At first he answered cautiously, but after drinking deeper he became less cautious and more confidential, but his utterance was now thick and unintelligible. He drew his chair closer to mine, and seemed about to let me into some secret, when some other customers at the next table began to talk about the murder.”
“I noticed that the would-be friar started, and instead of continuing his conversation with me, got up suddenly and muttered some excuse for taking his departure. He paid me hurriedly by laying down a reichsgulden, saying that whatever change there might be I could keep for myself. He had hardly left my house when some of the guard who had been on the track of the murderer stopped and questioned him, and, finding he could give no satisfactory account of himself, took him into custody.”
Other witnesses were then examined in their turn, among which were certain members of the family of the murdered count, and a certain Fraulein von Berlichingen, his affianced bride, all of whom recognized the body to be that of the missing Graf von Waffenburg. The silken purse with silver beads picked up by the first witness was also recognized by Fraulein von Berlichingen as having been knitted by herself and presented by her to her lover.
The remains of the murdered count were decently interred; the melancholy event causing no small commotion in the neighbourhood. The funeral was followed by a large crowd of relatives and intimate friends, among whom were Fritz and Ludwig. The grief of Fraulein von Berlichingen was too great to allow her to appear at the funeral. She was inconsolable, and, indeed, shortly afterwards entered a convent.
But to return to the trial.
The prisoner was now conducted into court. He was a man somewhat past middle-age, though his frame and eyebrows were of a deep black, yet an observer night have noticed that whenever a ray of sunlight entered the court and shone full in his face that his hair and beard turned to a glowing purple, demonstrating beyond a doubt the presence of a dye. Those who chanced to be stationed near the prisoner declared afterwards that the hairs of his head towards the roots were of a bright red, and many were they who recognized, in spite of this disguise, the person of Franz Wenzel, the executioner.
The prisoner, however, when examined, gave his name as Adolf Schmidt, and denied stoutly that he was Franz Wenzel, or to having ever had dealings with such a person.
He denied having stolen a bottle of hair-dye for the purpose of disguising himself, and maintained that he as an honest citizen who had donned a holy garb for penitence, which had been imposed upon him by his father confessor.
The prisoner was then asked if such were the case, why he had tried to deceive the host of the “Bear Inn” and the Capuchin friar when they asked him whence he came. To this the prisoner replied that he loved not to gratify the idle curiosity of others respecting his private affairs. Ludwig Engstein then asked him how he came in possession of the friar’s amice, to which he responded that it had been lent him some time ago by his father confessor, who had obtained it from some Capuchin friar of his acquaintance.
When asked for particulars concerning his father confessor, he replied vaguely and confusedly, and when begged to be more explicit, he refused, saying he had private reasons for not divulging the affairs of his friends.
Other witnesses were then called for, who stated that they had been robbed of money and various sorts of goods more than once within the last three years, about half a (German) mile from the house of the Scharfrichter by a man who wore a mask, and who corresponded in height and breadth of body to the prisoner. Among these latter was a Jew pedlar, who three years ago had been robbed of a large sum and various articles of clothing, among which he declared was the identical friar’s amice held up in court, and which he perfectly remembered to have patched himself.
This and such like evidence naturally went very much against the prisoner; neither will it be wondered it that his disguise was easily seen through, and his person recognized as that of Franz Wenzel, the executioner. He was consequently found guilty of willful murder and finally condemned to be beheaded. The day of the execution was fixed, and the prisoner conducted to the condemned cell.
We have mentioned before in an early part of this story that the profession of the headsman was hereditary, and that the law forced the son of an executioner to follow in the steps of his father.
The unhappy wretch then, according to this law, was doomed to lose his life at the hands of his own son. Such speculation, however, among the inhabitants of _____dorf had arisen as to whether the law would actually enforce so rigorous a decree, and whether the son of the Scharfrichter would rebel against it if it did, or bow submissively to so harsh and unfeeling an order.
Some there were who thought that an exception ought to be made in this case, and a new henker selected, as it was hard for the son to suffer for the crimes of the father; but even if the law were disposed to be lenient, who was the new aspirant to be? Who should like to come forward to offer his services?
The office of the Scharfrichter was in such bad dour that it would be difficult to find a man in the whole village who could be persuaded to undertake the task, even by the offer of a large reward.
However, after much speculation and gossip, the inhabitants came to the conclusion that everything might be done with money, and that someone would be certainly found to accept the bribe.
Others began to spread throughout the village the report that the man had already been found, and ventured to point out such or such a citizen as the new practitioner. Meanwhile the law had remained passive and had not troubled itself to make an exception in the case, and the burgomaster who had the superintendence of such affairs was far too phlegmatic and indifferent even to give the matter a thought.
He knew that an execution had to take place, that someone would be paid for amputating the head of the criminal, but whether it was to be one man’s duty or another’s was all the same to him.
The headsman’s trade was hereditary, and he (the burgomaster) had never heard of any such innovation as that of selecting a new headsman during the lifetime of the rightful heir; therefore, as a matter of course, the young Scharfrichter was to decapitate his own father, and there was an end of the matter.
What mattered to him the feelings of the son at being forced to obey so unnatural a dictate? He was paid for it like anyone else, and very good pay, too.
What to him was the additional anguish of the criminal at being executed by his own son? The man knew well enough that his son would step into his shoes when he himself should be deprived of office, and if he didn’t like to lose his head at the hands of his own son, he ought to have reflected before he committed the murder.
Now, the burgomaster had a confidential servant, one Heinrich Göbel, a man of heartless and revengeful nature, who cherished an ill-will against the prisoner’s son for having dared to supplant him in the affections of a certain blue-eyed damsel, the daughter of a tavern-keeper in the village.
The father of the lady in question was not over pleased with the attentions of either of these individuals towards his Lieschen, one of the aspirants for his daughter’s hand being a drunkard, the son of an executioner, who besides the stigma inevitably attached to his character for life, would be obliged to maintain his daughter by the scanty proceeds of his loathsome profession
The other, a man of notoriously bad character, and dependent upon the wages he received from his master for a living. Of the two, the maid herself decidedly favoured Leo Wenzel, the young headsman, and seeing this, Heinrich Göbel inwardly resolved to take vengeance on his rival upon the first opportunity.
Whilst thus plotting evil in his heart, Göbel sought his master and shaped his conversation in this wise:
“Herr Bürgermeister, this execution will be a somewhat difficult business.”
“How so?” inquired his master.
“Why, according to law,” answered his servant, “young Leo will have to take the life of his own father.”
“Well, what of that?” said the burgomaster.
“They say he is a young man of spirit, and he might refuse to do so.”
“Refuse! would he? The law will force him.”
“But if he is obstinate and persists? He is a young man of spirit.”
“Ugh! I hate these young men of spirit, they are always making trouble and subverting order. Well, if he makes a disturbance, he will be imprisoned, that’s all.”
“Yes, yes, of course; but for all that, if he positively refuses to lift his arm against his father, the law cannot force him to do it.”
“Well, not exactly, but—but what has put it into your head that he will refuse? He will be rewarded for his services.”
“But if he could not be tempted by a reward, if by chance he should refuse at the last moment to act the part of executioner towards his own father, and no one else should be found to accept such a job—why, in that case, if my services would be accepted, I should be most glad to officiate.”
“What, you Heinrich! you turn scharfrichter! Ha ! ha!—this is something quite new. I was not aware that that was anything in your line.”
“Well, knowing your worship’s dislike to a disturbance among the populace (a thing very likely to occur if the headsman should not be found at his post)—rather than such an old vagabond as Franz Wenzel should get off in the confusion, why I’d undertake the task myself.”
“You would? Ha! ha!—but stay, if there should be a disturbance (which Heaven forfend, as any excitement sadly upsets my digestion), I am not so sure that I should like my servant to take upon himself the office of scharfrichter, for the odium of the populace that he would naturally incur would reflect likewise upon his master, and---”
“ Well, if your worship fears that, I should then advise another line of conduct.”
“Indeed! What may that be?”
“To keep young Leo in ignorance that it is his father that he is called upon to execute. Listen to me! The Scharfrichter’s house is a mile distant; our villagers have a superstitious dread of the spot, and are not likely yet to have communicated with the young man, and I know that he hasn’t been in the township since he was last called to swear to the identity of the murdered man, then commonly believed to be his father. You will recollect that he identified the corpse as that of his father. In his lonely dwelling, he can have heard nothing of the trial, and is consequently still under the impression that it is his parent who has been murdered.”
“Now, if you will leave the matter to me I will contrive that he shall not be undeceived until too late.”
“Yes; but how?”
“First of all I will go there myself with the news that the murderer has been arrested, that the day has been fixed for his execution, and that he will have the pleasure of trying his hand for the first time in his life on his father’s murderer. Everything will go straight, provided he has as yet heard nothing from other tongues.”
“But if he has?”
“Then our plan is frustrated; but I will go to ascertain that, and if he has not, the greatest care must be taken that no one communicates with him from this town, to which end you should give orders for the gates of the town to be closed for some days, under the excuse that you have been robbed of certain valuables, and have taken that precaution to catch the thief. It would be as well, perhaps, to hurry on the execution as quickly as possible.”
“Well, but there is one point I don’t understand. Supposing all to go on smoothly, as you seem so confident that it will, won’t the young man recognize his father when led up to the scaffold in the ‘poor sinner’s’ cart, and afterwards on taking his seat on the chair placed for him?”
“There is our great difficulty, but let us hope for the best. The prisoner, as you know, took the precaution to die his red hair black in order to escape recognition. This will aid our project. The ‘poor sinner’s’ garb that he will don on the morning of the execution will also help the disguise. Young Leo is but a superficial observer, and before he has taken good note of the criminal his head will be off.”
“You are very hopeful as to the success of your scheme, but if the father, in his last moments, makes himself known to his son—should rush into his arms to embrace him and say: ‘ My son do you not know me ? I am your father—you will not have the heart to execute your own father, the author of your existence!’”
“We must prevent that. Let a handkerchief be tied round his jaw so that he cannot open his mouth to speak. This, after all, will be nothing more than is usually done to make it easy to catch hold of the head in order to exhibit it to the public after decapitation, the only difference being that it is generally tied on after the criminal has taken his seat on the scaffold, while in this case it will be done before. Another bandage should be bound round his eyes at the same time, which is also customary; thus a great portion of the prisoner’s face will be hidden. His arms will be pinioned firmly to his sides, so as to render all attempt at the removal of the bandage impossible, and everything will pass off quietly.”
“Well, well, you are a queer dog. See that it does pass off quietly, that’s all, and don’t bother me any more about it. Mind, I leave the matter entirely in your hands.”
“Never fear, sir, I am off at once to the house of the Scharfrichter; trust everything to me. Stay, you had better issue an order for the gates of the town to be closed at once. You can give me a pass before I start, or they will shut me out with the rest.”
“True; just wait one moment. Here—the pen and ink—so now be off as fast as you can.”
The servant of the burgomaster started with the order to the gatekeeper to close the gates, and the pass which was to admit none but himself, and after the gatekeeper had received the necessary instructions, Heinrich walked rapidly through the gates and directed his steps towards the house of the Scharfrichter. He chuckled to himself as he contemplated in advance the success of his scheme.
“What would the death of his father at my hands be to him compared to the discovery that he had taken his father’s life himself! That will be revenge indeed! Now, to the fulfillment of my scheme there is no obstacle.”
He had proceeded about an English mile on his way when, suddenly lifting his eyes, he descried in the distance the figure of an aged man, who appeared to be going the same road as himself. He hastened his steps and soon overtook the veteran, whom he then recognized as one of his fellow citizens, a certain Gustav Meyer, a man known to be one of the greatest gossips in the neighbourhood.
“Good-day, Gustav,” said Göbel, with forced good humour. “Where are you off to on those venerable pins of yours?”
“Ach! lieber freund Göbel!” exclaimed the loquacious old man; “ how are you? I have not seen you for an age. You have grown proud since you have been n the burgomaster’s service, and forget that it was I who got you the situation, for you never come to see me now, though we used to be such cronies, you know. But you young folks never think it worth while to give old fogies a call to see how we are. Why, I might be dead and buried for all you would know about it, and even if you did hear of it, I suppose it would be all the same to you, eh?”
“Well, well, ‘ingratitude is the reward of the world,’ as the proverb says, and we old fogies, with one foot in the grave and the other about to follow, must make up our minds to be put on the shelf. We all have our turn; I have had mine, you are having yours, but old age comes at last, and then there is an end of us all, even of the best of us. I have been young myself, friend Göbel. Ha! ha! You’d hardly think so to look at me now with these silvery locks and tottering limbs. I say you’d hardly think so now, would you, eh? Now, how many years should you think I could count, friend Göbel, tell me?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said Göbel, impatiently.
“I am hard upon ninety years old, and all tell me that I carry my years well. I may say I haven’t had a day’s illness in all my life. I have nearly all my teeth yet, and---”
“I have no doubt all you say is very true, my friend,” interrupted Göbel; “but you have hardly answered my question satisfactorily yet. I asked you where you were going?”
“Friend Göbel,” said the old man, “now I’ll just tell you what I propose doing this morning, just by way of stretching my old limbs, seeing that I have not had a walk for an age. It does old folks good to go out for a stroll every now and then in the country. Too much staying at home over the fire isn’t good, even for the likes of me.”
“Well, well,” broke in Göbel, beginning to lose all patience. “I asked you where you were going.”
“Did you? Ah yes, I had nearly forgot. We old folks are apt to lose our memories at times, you know, my friend, so you young folks ought to have compassion on us, and recollect that we were once like you, and that you will one day become like us, therefore---”
“This is insufferable,” burst out Göbel, whose forbearance was quite at an end. “I ask you a plain question, and I expect a plain answer. I repeat the question—Where are you going?”
“Hoity, toity! friend Göbel,” cried the old man, in great surprise. “What! so impatient with your old friend Gustav! Don’t you remember how often I have taken you upon my knee and danced you? We used to be great friends then. Don’t you recollect? But I suppose you have forgotten all that now, eh ?— since you have become a man. Let me see, how long ago must that be? Full thirty years ago, if it’s a day, I’ll warrant.”
“Will you, or will you not give me a plain answer to a plain question. Tell me where you are going?” cried Göbel, now quite furious, and shaking the old man violently by both shoulders.
“Softly, softly! friend Göbel!” cried the veteran, much alarmed. “Spare my life! Prithee, spare my life, and I will tell you where I am going, if you will have patience!”
“Well, tell me at once, and let us have no more chattering,” said Göbel, leaving go his hold.
“Well, in the first place then,” began old Gustav, recovering himself—“in the first place—but stay, upon second thoughts, I’ll just leave you to guess where I am going. Now, where do you think?”
“Dotard, have a care!” cried Göbel, threateningly, “and trifle with me no longer. Tell me where you are going, or_____”
“Well, well, friend Göbel, I’ll tell you; don’t be afraid, don’t let two such old friends as we are quarrel or a trifle,—I’ll tell you where I am going, although I must say that I think you seem to take an uncommon interest in the doings of an old man like me. Who, though he be an old friend_____”
“Take care, now!”
“Well, well, my friend, wait one moment! I’ll tell you. I told you before that I would tell you, and I will be as good as my word, if you will have one moment’s patience—for patience, friend Göbel, patience, I say, is a virtue that we ought all to cultivate, and which we all of us more or less are sadly wanting in. But to proceed; though, after all, my friend, what hurry can you possibly have to learn so simple a fact? It appears to me that the world has grown wondrously impatient since my time; that is, if everybody is like you, but as I said before______”
“Tell me! tell me!” screamed Göbel, seizing his venerable friend a second time by the shoulders.
“Well, then, my friend,” said Gustav, drawing out his words at a most provoking length, “ if I must tell you, and you are quite sure that you have sufficient patience to listen to me, learn that I am going to pay a visit at the house of the Scharfrichter, to have a quiet little gossip. You know I am fond of a nice little gossip. Well, I am just going to have a little chat with that poor young man, Leo Wenzel. What do you think? He doesn’t know yet that his father is the real murderer, for he lives so far off and no one ever goes near the house, to tell him the news, and he is still under the delusion that his father has been murdered, and that the assassin has not yet been caught. Poor young man, I shall have to break the news very gently to him, for he will feel it deeply. He must know the truth sooner or later, so I have taken upon myself to be the first to communicate the unwelcome news.”
“According to the law he will be obliged to take the life of his own father. It will be a dreadful blow to him, poor boy, and I am sure I don’t know how he will be induced to act as executioner in the present instance. I know not if the law in this case will make an exception and choose someone else in his place; it will be very hard upon him if the law really should insist on being carried out to the very letter. Let us hope that mercy will be shown to the son, but in any case it is a very dreadful affair, so I thought I would just go to comfort him a little, to see how he takes the matter, and give him courage, in case_____”
“I thought as much!” muttered Göbel to himself; then aloud to his friend, “So that is where you are going, is it? Ah, then I will save you the trouble. Being a matter of no importance, you need not be in a hurry. Listen to me; my master has lost certain valuables, and has given orders for the gates of the town to be closed until he has discovered the thief, and has strictly commanded me to arrest any person I might find leaving the town, until the property shall have been recovered. I should be sorry to suspect you, but as the law respects the person of no man, it is my painful duty to take you back to the town. Let us have no more cackling or resistance, but come at once____”
“But my dear friend Göbel!” pleaded the veteran, “you surely can’t suspect—you will not for one moment imagine—nay, if you have any doubt of my honesty, search me. I can assure you it will be useless! I am innocent!”
“If you are innocent, you will be proved so in due time, meanwhile I have orders____”
“But, friend Göbel, I assure you again and again upon my oath that I have taken nothing. There—look—search me all over, if you will, and let me go in peace. Is not my character enough? Am I not well known in _____dorf? Have I ever been known to touch my neighbour’s goods? Pray satisfy yourself that I have taken nothing, and let me go. Why trouble yourself to bring back a man to the town to be searched whom you know to be innocent. Besides, it will upset my plan. I wouldn’t miss my little gossip with young Leo for all the world, just at this moment. Pray consider, my friend_____”
“Cease your cackling and come along with me!” shouted Göbel, seizing him by the collar and dragging him forcibly back towards the town.
“But—but—” stammered the astonished and terrified old man.
“But me no buts, but do my bidding instantly, Sir Driveller, or it will be the worse for you.”
So saying, he dragged his old friend home again at a hurried pace, regardless of his tottering limbs and of his prayers and entreaties.
It was just mid-day, and the sun shone hot, when Göbel returned to the township, perspiring at every pore, and deposited his charge, more dead than alive, within the walls. He then retraced his steps under the broiling sun, cursing and swearing as he went at his plan having been so nearly frustrated by the cackling gossip of an old dotard.
“Potz—Himmel, Donnerwetter, Schock, Schwerer, Noth, noch mal!” he muttered to himself. “A pretty obstacle in my path! Tausend Teufel! I had a mind to dash his brains out on the spot, the old idiot, for his driveling.”
With these and such-like elaborately-strung-together-oaths, the servant of the burgomaster beguiled the time, until at length he arrived at the door of the Scharfrichter’s house, and discovered young Leo at work in his garden. The young executioner looked up the sound of a stranger’s footsteps, and though he would rather the visitor had been any one else than his rival, yet upon the whole he was not displeased to see a human face after so long. His manner even warmed towards his visitor when he saw him advance with a smile on his face and an extended hand.
“Leo,” began Heinrich Göbel with feigned kindness, “we have long been enemies, but everything has an end. I have now come to offer you my hand in friendship, for henceforth we are no longer rivals, but friends. Think of Lieschen no more. Her father positively refuses to give her to either of us, so she has at length plighted her troth to another man.”
“What! Lieschen? Impossible!” cried Leo, mopping his forehead.
“Ay, my friend, it is too true; nay, pray calm yourself. I, too, loved her as you did, but since the matter has turned out thus, I have made up my mind to console myself by paying my addresses to another as soon as possible.”
“You never could have loved her as I loved her,” gasped out Leo, as he staggered for support against the garden wall.
“Well, well, my friend, I knew you would feel the blow, but calm yourself and dismiss these gloomy thoughts. I have better news than that in store for you.”
“What care I for news now that she has deserted me?” groaned Leo distractedly.
“Come, come now, let me comfort you a little!” said Göbel. “What do you think? The murderer of your father has been discovered!”
“What do I hear? Caught? Safe?”
“Ay, the murder has been proved, and the murderer condemned to die by the sword. The execution has been fixed for the day after to-morrow. It will take place at daybreak as usual, and you will have the satisfaction of taking vengeance on your father’s murderer with your own hands. You will wield your father’s sword for the first time in your life before an admiring crowd. Think of that.”
“Vengeance at last!” cried the young headsman, with flushed face and distorted features. “ Vengeance at last! Thank God! thank God!”
“Bravo, old friend!” cried Göbel, slapping his heartily detested rival on the shoulder in the friendliest manner possible. “I knew you would take heart at this piece of news. Come, let us sit down together and console ourselves.”
Leo, then entering the house, took from a cupboard a large bottle of schnaps and two glasses. The two companions, seating themselves, began to drink deeply and to chat incessantly, the subject of the discourse being the particulars of the murder according to the version of Göbel. We need hardly say that the whole was a fabrication of Heinrich’s own brain. At length the servant of the burgomaster rose to take his departure, and having enjoined his rival to be of good cheer, bent his steps again towards the township, chuckling by the way at his success. Arrived at the gates of the town, he showed his pass, and was permitted to enter without let or hindrance. Hurrying through the streets until he reached the burgomaster’s house, he presented himself before that worthy, whom he found seated at a table before a plate of sausage, and in the act of draining to the dregs an enormous tankard of beer.
“Well, what news?” asked his master.
“Oh! the very best; he took the bait greedily. It was quite a pleasure to see how he enjoyed the news. No one had been before me, so I had him all to myself. The matter will now go off as smoothly as could be desired; but, by the saints! I had a narrow escape of failure.”
“Indeed! How was that?”
“When I was nearly half way to the Scharfrichter’s house, whom should I see just ahead of me but that cursed old gossip, Gustav Meyer. I stopped him and asked him where he was going. Potztausend! what a chatterbox! I thought I should not get an answer out of him before nightfall, and when I did, where do you think he was going? Why, straight to the house of the henker to have a quiet chat with young Leo upon the subject of the murder, and reveal to him all that I had taken such pains to keep secret. He seemed delighted at the idea of being the first to deliver the news.”
The burgomaster laughed heartily.
“Well, what did you do?” said he, at length.
“What did I do! I told him his presence was particularly wanted at the township, and seizing him by the collar, dragged him all the way back again, regardless of his cackling. I informed him that you had lost some valuables, and had given me orders to arrest anyone leaving the town, on suspicion. He was indignant at the charge. Protested, declared his innocence, and spoke of the high character he had always borne in the town, etc., etc. He seemed in despair at being deprived of his little gossip with the henker’s son, and begged and entreated me to let him have it out quietly; but, deaf to all his chattering, I dragged him home again in spite of himself, and lodged him safely within the gates of the town. Donner und Blitzen! but it was enough to raise the bile of a saint to listen to the wanderings of that antique driveller, to say nothing of having one’s plan so nearly frustrated; by such a worm as that too!”
Here again the burgomaster burst into a loud laugh, in which Göbel, in spite of himself, joined.
“Ah,” said he, at length recovering himself, “there is one thing yet to be done. I must go to the jailer of the prison with private orders from your worship to prevent the prisoner having an interview with his son, should he ask for one. This accomplished, there will be no more difficulty.”
“Ah, yes,” said the burgomaster, “it would be as well. But what an interest you seem to take in this case, Heinrich! One would imagine that you had a private grudge against the prisoner.”
“I like to see things well done,” was the reply, and the servant shortly after left the presence of his master.
“A great sensation was caused in ____dorf when it was given out that the execution had been hurried on a week, and much speculation arose as to what could have been the burgomaster’s motive. Half the town already knew by the tongue of old Gustav of his having been arrested by the servant of the burgomaster on suspicion of having robbed his master of certain property just at the very time when he (Gustav) was contemplating the pleasure he would have in being the first to communicate the melancholy tidings of the murder to the young headsman. They, therefore, concluded that Leo must still be in ignorance of the real state of the case. The other half of _____dorf, however, never gave a thought as to whether he knew it or not; enough for them that someone was going to be beheaded and that they should have a spectacle to vary the monotony of their humdrum lives.
At length the fatal day arrived. The gates of the town were thrown open (for the servant of the burgomaster gave out that the thief had been discovered and the valuables regained), and now all _____dorf was in an uproar, while crowds of peasants from all the surrounding villages flocked to witness the bloody spectacle.
The scaffold, or the mound of earth which was to serve as such, had been erected half way between the township and the house of the executioner, and was already surrounded by a file of soldiers, around which thronged the mob so closely that they were every now and then repulsed by the military; From the sea of human heads that inundated the place of execution resounded a hum of voices, in which salutations, sallies, bad language, coarse jokes, and coarser laughter, together with murmurs and imprecations, and an occasional scream from the women when the crowd pressed too closely, were confusedly mingled, and resembled at a little distance the bleating of an immense flock of sheep. Classes of all sorts were jostled together, from the lowest grade of handwerksbursch to the university Student. There were pretty peasant girls in their holiday costumes, and sturdy peasants from all parts of the country. There were Jew hawkers, sharpers, pickpockets, ruffianly bullies, cripples, and mendicants. There were mothers with young children in their arms, which latter contributed their feeble cries to the general hubbub.
All had turned out to feast their eyes upon the death of a fellow creature. Nor was this an ordinary execution like that described in an earlier part of this story. No; this was an exceptional case—something out of the common way; a rare spectacle.
In this case the condemned was no obscure handwerksbursch, of whose career the multitude knew nothing, and cared less. The criminal was no other than Franz Wenzel, the far-famed Scharfrichter, who had amputated the heads of “poor sinners” for the last thirty or forty years, and was now doomed to lose his own.
The interest in the case was considerably heightened when it was known that the veteran executioner was to be operated upon by the hands of his own son. Then the facts of the murder were so strange, and unnatural. Fancy the cunning of that hardened old sinner, the ex-headsman, who, according to his own confession, made in prison the day before the execution, had waylaid, robbed, and murdered the innocent Count of Waffenburg, a scion of one of the most wealthy and respected noble families for miles round, disguised as a Capuchin friar, and in order to conceal the identity of the murdered man, had dissevered the head of the corpse, which he had endeavoured to hide for ever from the eye of man by throwing it into the trunk of a hollow chestnut tree! Then, having stripped the corpse of its clothes, and afterwards having stripped himself of his usual garments which had been covered by the monk’s robe, he dressed up the corpse of his victim in his own well known crimson-coloured doublet and hose, thereby conveying the idea to the public mind that the corpse found was his own, after which, returning to his house close by, having again donned the friar’s habit, he deposited the sword usually set apart for the amputating the head of the murdered count, and wiping it well, he lighted a fire on his hearth where he burned one by one the habilments of his victim. He then left his house a second time, still disguised as a friar and laden with his ill-gotten treasure, passed once more the scene of the murder and wandered all night in the direction of _________. How strange the evidence, too, that convicted him; the theft of the bottle of hair dye, the remarkable patch on his amice. Every particular of the murder had an indescribable interest in the minds of the populace of _____dorf and its surrounding villages. No wonder the adjacent townhips poured forth their scum of the curious, idle, and depraved! This was a sight not to be missed on any account, and would furnish them with gossip for the next six months at least. At length, when the long, streaky, rose-tipped clouds announced the approach of the fatal hour, the crowd burst out simultaneously into a cry of “He comes! he comes! the henker comes!”
The crowd made room for a young man in a cart, who, having thrown the reins on the horse’s neck, passed through the file of soldiers and mounted the hillock of earth, armed with the two-handed weapon that he was about to use for the first time in his life.
“Look!” said one of the crowd, “ it is young Leo, after all. I thought they had found a substitute.”
“What a hard-hearted young ruffian he must be to consent to take the life of his father with his own hands!” said another.
“And he doesn’t seem to feel it a bit,” said a third; “why, he is actually smiling!”
“Some folks say that he does not know who it is that he is going to behead,” said a fourth.
“Not know that the criminal is his father?” exclaimed the former speaker. “Nonsense, I don’t believe it!”
The young headsman was attired in a buff leather jerkin slashed with red, and hose of a dark green. He appeared about two-and-twenty, and was as yet beardless. He was considerably taller than his father, but his frame, though powerfully built, was devoid of that excessive and almost preternatural muscular development that characterized the old executioner. His hair was of a reddish brown, his complexion florid, his eyes, light blue, and his features, though somewhat coarse, had something in them not altogether disagreeable. He leaned firmly on his sword and gazed around calmly on the crowd, when suddenly the human sea became violently agitated and began to groan and hiss in its fury.
The cause of this tumult became speedily known.
It was the arrival of the “poor sinner,” who was drawn in a cart between two priests, and habited according to the custom of the condemned on such occasions. Loud hooting and execrations burst forth on all sides from the crowd as it pressed its way to the condemned cart.
“But that is not Franz Wenzel,” said one to his neighbour. “The old henker had red hair; this man’s hair is black.”
“Fool, don’t you know how that is?” said his neighbour. “Haven’t you heard yet how he dyed his hair black in order not to be recognized?”
“No, did he though?” said the former. “But look! why is his head tied up so with two handkerchiefs? I can’t see anything of his face.”
“H’m, I don’t know; some new order, I suppose, The handkerchief always used to be tied on when on the scaffold in my time,” answered his friend. The criminal had now alighted from the cart, and, followed by the two priests, ascended the place of execution, where he took his seat on the chair placed for him. The assistant executioner, whose face was most successfully disguised with a black mask, pushed his way through the crowd and mounted the platform.
“Who is he?” was a question asked by everyone of everybody; “and why is he masked, while Leo, who bears the sword, is unmasked?”
“Who knows? Perhaps he is the new headsman that they all talked about, and young Leo will not really behead his own father; but we shall see.”
The crowd had grown more excited than ever. Everyone stood on the tip-toe of expectation, with his eyes and mouth wide open. An intense silence reigned around, during which the man in the mask bound the criminal firmly to his seat with a strong cord, then, seizing the handkerchief that was tied round his head, he gave the signal for the blow. The two priests, who had hitherto been whispering consolation in the ear of the murderer, now retreated a few paces to the rear, while young Leo advanced, flushed and triumphant, his whole countenance distorted with an expression of hatred and revenge. Before brandishing his sword to give the final blow, he hissed out in accents sufficiently audible to be overheard by that part of the crowd assembled nearest to the scaffold: “Wretch! thine hour has come at last. Learn now the vengeance of a wronged son! Thou shalt see if I am the son of my father or no, and whether it is for nothing that I have been bred a Scharfrichter. Prepare now, for thou art soon to learn how I have profited by my lessons—whether I am an apt pupil or not. My sword is sharpened well on purpose for thee, and when thou feelest the cold steel close to thy neck, then, then, to h__l with thee, and bear throughout eternity the curses of a ruined son!”
During this speech of the young headsman the criminal was observed to tremble convulsively, as if struggling to speak, but the assistant executioner grasped the handkerchief still tighter for a moment round his head and repeated the signal impatiently, then, hurriedly drew back.
“Did you hear?” said one of the foremost in the crowd. “Did you hear how he cursed his father? He actually reproached him in his last moments for having brought him up a Scharfrichter! Oh! The unfeeling young villain! What a heart he must have.”
“Ah! neighbour,” answered another, “these executioners are not like other mortals: they do not know what it is to feel. They are brought up to kill their fellow creatures as butchers are to kill cattle, and they think nothing of it. Bless you, there is nothing these men would not do for money!”
“ ‘Tis strange, too,” said another standing close by. “I always thought young Leo loved his father. I never thought so bad of him as to think that he would curse him in his dying moments, wretch though he may have been.”
“Take my word for it, neighbour,” said a sturdy inhabitant of ——dorf,” that young Leo does not know yet that it is his father.”
At this moment everyone suddenly broke short his discourse, and the crowd again was silent for a moment. The two-handed weapon was raised high in the air, glittered for a moment in the rays of the rising sun, then descended with the rapidity of lightning, while the head of the murderer, having slipped out of the handkerchief with the force of the blow, fell, with a crash, on the ground.
A loud cheer was raised by the crowd, and young Leo having thrown away his sword and pushed aside the assistant executioner, seized the head of the criminal and tore off the bandage from the eyes. He held it high in the air by its purple locks, and gloated, with fiendish satisfaction, on its writhing features. The muscles of the face were fearfully convulsed, as if the spirit had not as yet quite departed, but still lingered about the head, being loth to leave its tenement. The eyes rolled hideously and appeared to gaze reproachfully upon the face of the young executioner. Suddenly a change came over the features of the young man. His countenance, the moment before so flushed with triumph and revenge, now assumed a ghastly pallor; a cold sweat broke out on his forehead, and his matted locks stood on end. His eyes almost started from his head, his jaw dropped low. Then, with a preternatural shriek, he dropped the head, which rolled down the hillock of earth among the crowd, staggered and fell heavily upon the platform, gasping out “Oh, Gott! Mein Vater!” (Oh, God! My father!)
No words can describe the sensation created among the crowd at this horrible scene. Questions and explanations ensued, and a rush was made towards the scaffold. Assistance was at length procured, and the son of the late executioner was lifted from the ground and driven towards his own house in the cart in which he had set out in the morning to execute his fearful mission. A doctor was sent for, who declared that he was in an apoplectic fit. In time, however, he recovered, and the doctor left someone with him to watch and keep him quiet. Nevertheless, when he came to reflect upon what had happened that morning, in spite of all restraint, he rushed wildly into the chamber where his poor paralytic mother lay on her death-bed, and losing all caution and reflection in his emotion, he related in a wild and excited manner the dreadful events of the day. The result may be anticipated. The poor woman, long given up by the doctors, sank under the startling news, and expired almost instantaneously.
Young Leo, who, with the exception of his drunkenness had really nothing very bad in him, now gave way to the most excessive grief, for he loved his mother tenderly. He felt himself now guilty of the murder of both his parents, and refused all consolation. What had he now to live for, he thought. His father he had murdered with his own hands, and sent with curses to the tomb; his mother, who was so dear to him, he had hurried to the grave through his insane want of self-restraint. His sweetheart, was false (as he thought), although they had secretly plighted their troth together! What was life to him now but a burden? He loathed it. These gloomy thoughts clouded his mind with a profound melancholy, a deep incurable despair. On the following morning, Leo Wenzel, the young executioner, fell upon his own sword, yet moist with the blood of his father, by him so unconsciously shed the day before, and died.
With the death of Leo Wenzel the family became extinct, and the profession of the Scharfrichter went begging. But who was the assistant-executioner? Nobody could find out. He had disappeared as mysteriously as he had made his appearance. Some said it was one, and some another, while the most settled belief was that it could be none other than the arch-fiend himself, who had come to carry off the henker’s soul. In the confusion that followed the swooning of young Leo he had vanished, and no one had seen whither. No human being could have passed through a crowd without being seen by someone, therefore it must have been the arch enemy of mankind. Thus reasoned the people of ___dorf.
And Lieschen, what became of her? Poor girl! The news of her lover’s suicide, for she had truly loved the youthful headsman, completely overwhelmed her. She fell into a decline and outlived her lover but one year.
The servant of the burgomaster was mistaken in believing that after Leo’s death the course would be clear for him. His heartless scheme had come to light (for it was difficult to keep anything long a secret in ____dorf), and he found the door of Lieschen’s house closed against him for ever.
He soon knew that he was hated by everyone in the town, and tradition relates that some years afterwards, when he was in the service of another master, his employer having missed certain articles of plate and called in the police to search his boxes, they found not only the missing articles, but also a black mask and a suit of sad coloured clothes, recognized as having been worn by the assistant on the day of Wenzel’s execution.
Finding his reputation lost in _____dorf, he deemed it advisable to retire to another village, where he afterwards married. The last we hear of him is that he ultimately accepted the office of Scharfrichter, and took up his abode in the house of Franz Wenzel, where he reared up a long line of executioners, which was only broken many years later by the profession of the henker ceasing to be obligatory.
But what of our two friends Fritz and Ludwig? We had nigh forgotten them. That they were both of them present at the execution is undoubted from certain passages in their correspondence after my ancestor had left Germany for ever. The day after Wenzel’s execution was the last time they met on earth. They each of them passed the remainder of their days in their own respective countries, though they corresponded frequently. The most recently dated letter from Ludwig Engstein bears with it the news of his marriage, and in a postscript he mentions having been just informed that since the execution of Franz Wenzel the tricks of the Poltergeist had ceased for ever.
*Scharfrichter or executioner; literally, “the sharp judge.”
**Another name for headsman or hangman.
*** Philister, or Philistine.
**** The moss. Slang word among German students for money.
***** Löwen—also money.
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