A Word Only A Word by Georg Ebers
"A word, only a word!" cried a fresh, boyish voice, then two hands were loudly clapped and a gay laugh echoed through the forest. Hitherto silence had reigned under the boughs of the pines and tops of the beeches, but now a wood-pigeon joined in the lad's laugh, and a jay, startled by the clapping of hands, spread its brown wings, delicately flecked with blue, and soared from one pine to another.
Spring had entered the Black Forest a few weeks before. May was just over, yet the weather was as sultry as in midsummer and clouds were gathering in denser and denser masses. The sun was still some distance above the horizon, but the valley was so narrow that the day star had disappeared, before making its majestic entry into the portals of night.
When it set in a clear sky, it only gilded the border of pine trees on the crest of the lofty western heights; to-day it was invisible, and the occasional, quickly interrupted twittering of the birds seemed more in harmony with the threatening clouds and sultry atmosphere than the lad's gay laughter.
Every living creature seemed to be holding its breath in anxious suspense, but Ulrich once more laughed joyously, then bracing his bare knee against a bundle of faggots, cried:
"Give me that stick, Ruth, that I may tie it up. How dry the stuff is, and how it snaps! A word! To sit over books all day long for one stupid word--that's just nonsense!"
"But all words are not alike," replied the girl.
"Piff is paff, and paff is puff!" laughed Ulrich. "When I snap the twigs, you always hear them say 'knack, knack,' and 'knack' is a word too. The juggler Caspar's magpie, can say twenty."
"But father said so," replied Ruth, arranging the dry sticks. "He toils hard, but not for gold and gain, to find the right words. You are always wanting to know what he is looking for in his big books, so I plucked up courage to ask him, and now I know. I suppose he saw I was astonished, for he smiled just as he does when you have asked some foolish question at lessons, and added that a word was no trifling thing and should not be despised, for God had made the world out of one single word."
Ulrich shook his head, and after pondering a few minutes, replied.
"Do you believe that?"
"Father said so," was the little girl's only answer. Her words expressed the firm, immovable security of childish confidence, and the same feeling sparkled in her eyes. She was probably about nine years old, and in every respect a perfect contrast to her companion, her senior by several summers, for the latter was strongly built, and from beneath his beautiful fair locks a pair of big blue eyes flashed defiance at the world, while Ruth was a delicate little creature, with slender limbs, pale cheeks, and coal-black hair.
The little girl wore a fashionably-made, though shabby dress, shoes and stockings--the boy was barefoot, and his grey doublet looked scarcely less worn than the short leather breeches, which hardly reached his knees; yet he must have had some regard for his outer man, for a red knot of real silk was fastened on his shoulder. He could scarcely be the child of a peasant or woodland laborer--the brow was too high, the nose and red lips were too delicately moulded, the bearing was too proud and free.
Ruth's last words had given him food for thought, but he left them unanswered until the last bundle of sticks was tied up. Then he said hesitatingly:
"My mother--you know. . . . I dare not speak of her before father, he goes into such a rage; my mother is said to be very wicked--but she never was so to me, and I long for her day after day, very, very much, as I long for nothing else. When I was so high, my mother told me a great many things, such queer things! About a man, who wanted treasures, and before whom mountains opened at a word he knew. Of course it's for such a word your father is seeking."
"I don't know," replied the little girl. "But the word out of which God made the whole earth and sky and all the stars must have been a very great one."
Ulrich nodded, then raising his eyes boldly, exclaimed:
"Ah, if he should find it, and would not keep it to himself, but let you tell me! I should know what I wanted."
Ruth looked at him enquiringly, but he cried laughingly: "I shan't tell. But what would you ask?"
"I? I should ask to have my mother able to speak again like other people. But you would wish. . . ."
"You can't know what I would wish."
"Yes, yes. You would bring your mother back home again."
"No, I wasn't thinking of that," replied Ulrich, flushing scarlet and fixing his eyes on the ground.
"What, then? Tell me; I won't repeat it."
"I should like to be one of the count's squires, and always ride with him when he goes hunting."
"Oh!" cried Ruth. "That would be the very thing, if I were a boy like you. A squire! But if the word can do everything, it will make you lord of the castle and a powerful count. You can have real velvet clothes, with gay slashes, and a silk bed."
"And I'll ride the black stallion, and the forest, with all its stags and deer, will belong to me; as to the people down in the village, I'll show them!"
Raising his clenched fist and his eyes in menace as he uttered the words, he saw that heavy rain-drops were beginning to fall, and a thunder-shower was rising.
Hastily and skilfully loading himself with several bundles of faggots, he laid some on the little girl's shoulders, and went down with her towards the valley, paying no heed to the pouring rain, thunder or lightning; but Ruth trembled in every limb.
At the edge of the narrow pass leading to the city they stood still. The moisture was trickling down its steep sides and had gathered into a reddish torrent on the rocky bottom.
"Come!" cried Ulrich, stepping on to the edge of the ravine, where stones and sand, loosened by the wet, were now rattling down.
"I'm afraid," answered the little girl trembling. "There's another flash of lightning! Oh! dear, oh, dear! how it blazes!--oh! oh! that clap of thunder!"
She stooped as if the lightning had struck her, covered her face with her little hands, and fell on her knees, the bundle of faggots slipping to the ground. Filled with terror, she murmured as if she could command the mighty word: "Oh, Word, Word, get me home!"
Ulrich stamped impatiently, glanced at her with mingled anger and contempt, and muttering reproaches, threw her bundle and his own into the ravine, then roughly seized her hand and dragged her to the edge of the cliff.
Half-walking, half-slipping, with many an unkind word, though he was always careful to support her, the boy scrambled down the steep slope with his companion, and when they were at last standing in the water at the bottom of the gully, picked up the dripping fagots and walked silently on, carrying her burden as well as his own.
After a short walk through the running water and mass of earth and stones, slowly sliding towards the valley, several shingled roofs appeared, and the little girl uttered a sigh of relief; for in the row of shabby houses, each standing by itself, that extended from the forest to the level end of the ravine, was her own home and the forge belonging to her companion's father.
It was still raining, but the thunder-storm had passed as quickly as it rose, and twilight was already gathering over the mist-veiled houses and spires of the little city, from which the street ran to the ravine. The stillness of the evening was only interrupted by a few scattered notes of bells, the finale of the mighty peal by which the warder had just been trying to disperse the storm.
The safety of the town in the narrow forest-valley was well secured, a wall and ditch enclosed it; only the houses on the edge of the ravine were unprotected. True, the mouth of the pass was covered by the field pieces on the city wall, and the strong tower beside the gate, but it was not incumbent on the citizens to provide for the safety of the row of houses up there. It was called the Richtberg and nobody lived there except the rabble, executioners, and poor folk who were not granted the rights of citizenship. Adam, the smith, had forfeited his, and Ruth's father, Doctor Costa, was a Jew, who ought to be thankful that he was tolerated in the old forester's house.
The street was perfectly still. A few children were jumping over the mud-puddles, and an old washerwoman was putting a wooden vessel under the gutter, to collect the rain-water.
Ruth breathed more freely when once again in the street and among human beings, and soon, clinging to the hand of her father, who had come to meet her, she entered the house with him and Ulrich.