Chapter IV. An Unexpected Apparition
 

Kurt had so many plans the next day that he already rushed to school as if he had not a minute to lose. Mea and Lippo, who started with him, looked full of astonishment at his unusual speed. Arriving at the school, he saw Loneli coming along with a drooping head and not, as usual, with a happy stride.

"What is it, Loneli?" asked Kurt coming nearer. "Why are your eyes swollen already before it is even eight o'clock? Just he happy. I'll help you. Did anybody hurt you?"

"No, Kurt, no one, but I can't be happy any more," and with these words Loneli's eyes filled again with tears. "I wish you could see grandmother since I've been on the shame-bench. I would not mind if she were angry, for she generally forgives me again after a while; but she is sad all the time. It is worst when I go to school in the morning, because she says that I brought down shame on us both, and that I have given her gray hairs. She said to me that after having lived an honorable life and spent most of it with the most noble family, this was very hard for her. She felt as if she had raised me only to bring down shame on both for the rest of our lives."

Loneli broke out anew into tears. This neverending disgrace, together with the constant reproaches she had had to bear, seemed to choke her,

"No, no, Loneli, you don't need to cry any more. It is not at all the way your grandmother is taking it," Kurt said consolingly. "I'll go to her ever so soon to explain what happened. Please be happy and everything will come out all right."

"Do you think so?" Loneli asked, pleasantly surprised. Her eyes were clear again, for she always believed whatever Kurt said to her. Now he rushed over to the noisy crowd of children, who seemed to have been waiting for him. Kurt was always glad to have such numerous friends, for he usually needed a large following for the execution of his schemes. To-day he had two large undertakings in his head, and he needed to persuade his comrades to join him. He was explaining with such violent gestures and eager words that they entirely neglected the first strokes of the tower bell. At the last and eighth stroke the little crowd dispersed as suddenly as a flock of frightened birds. Then they rushed into the school house. Kurt was home to-day ahead of everybody, too. He approached his mother with a large sheet of paper.

"Look, mother, Mr. Trius got a song. Yesterday evening he threatened two more of my friends with the stick, but they were luckily able to save themselves. It seems as if he had at least four eyes and ears which can see and hear whatever is going on. I finished the song. Can I read it to you?"

"I wish you had no friends that Mr. Trius has occasion to frighten with a stick," said the mother. "I hope that it won't ever happen to you."

"Oh, he often threatens innocent people," Kurt replied. "Listen to a true description of him."

   A SONG ABOUT MR. TRIUS, THE BOY BEATER.

   Old Trius lives in our town,
   A haughty man is he,
   And every one that he can catch
   He beats right heartily.

   Old Trius wears a yellow coat,
   It's very long and thick,
   But all the children run away
   At sight of his big stick.

   Old Trius of the pointed hat
   He wanders all around,
   And if he beats nobody, why
   There's no one to be found.

   Old Trius thinks: To spank a boy
   Is really very kind,
   And all he cannot hit in front
   At least he hits behind.

   Old Trius makes a pretty face
   With every blow he gives.
   He'll beat us all for many years,
   I'm thinking, if he lives.

The mother could not help smiling a little bit during the perusal, but now she said seriously: "This song must under no condition fall into Mr. Trius' hands. He might not look at it as a joke, and you must not offend him. I advise you, Kurt, not to challenge Mr. Trius in any way, for he might reply to you in some unexpected fashion. He has his own ways and means of getting rid of people."

Kurt was very anxious to get his mother's permission to run about that same evening by moonlight with his friends, and his mother granted it willingly.

"I hope you are not going on one of the unfortunate apple-expeditions I hear so much about," she added.

Kurt quite indignantly assured her that he would never do such a thing. Lippo was pushing him to one side now. The little boy had made attempts to reach his mother for several minutes, and he was delighted at his brother's quick departure.

"Mr. Rector sends you his regards and he wants to know if you wanted to give him an answer. Here is a letter," said Lippo.

"Where did you bring the letter from?" asked the mother.

"I didn't bring the letter. Lise from the rectory brought it," was Lippo's information. "But Lise saw me in front of the door and said that I should take the letter up with me and give it to you, and tell her whether you wanted to give the Rector an answer or not."

"Oh, that is just the way a message ought to be given," the mother said with a smile. "Did you hear it, Maezli? I wish you could learn from Lippo how to do it. Whenever you have one to give, I have such trouble to find out what really happened and what you have only imagined."

Maezli, whose knitting-ball was at that moment in the most hopelessly knotted condition, was ever so glad when her mother suggested a new activity. Quickly flinging her knitting away, she jumped up from her stool. Then she began to repeat Lippo's speech, word for word: "I did not bring the letter. Lise from the rectory--"

"No, no, Maezli, I do not mean it that way," the mother interrupted her. "I mean that the reports you bring me so often sound quite impossible. I want you to be as careful and exact in them as Lippo."

In the meantime the mother had opened the letter and looked suddenly quite frightened.

"Tell the girl that I shall go to Mr. Rector myself and that she need not wait for an answer," was her message entrusted to Lippo.

The thing she had dreaded so much was settled now. The Rector let her know in his letter that he had realized the time had come for his pupils to be put into different hands. He wrote that he had decided to discontinue the studies with them next fall, but that he would be only too glad to be of assistance to Mrs. Maxa in consulting about Bruno's further education. He closed with an assurance that he would be the happier to do so because Bruno had always been very dear to him.

Mrs. Maxa, sitting silently with folded hands, was lost in thought. This was something that happened very seldom.

But Mea stood before her and trying to get her sympathy with passionate gestures. "Just think, mother," she cried out, "Elvira is so angry now that she will never have anything more to do with me, no never. But she was most offended because I told her that it was wrong of her; not to admit that she had chattered in school. She said quite sarcastically that if I chose to correct her on account of that raggedy Loneli, I should keep Loneli for a friend and not her."

"Let her be for once," said the mother. "Till now you have always gone after her; so do what she wishes this time. It is wrong to call Loneli raggedy; few people are as honest and agreeable as Apollonie and her grandchild."

Mea was ready with many more complaints, for whenever anything bothered her, she felt the need to tell her mother. She realized, though, that she had to put off further communications for a quiet evening hour.

Bruno had approached, and turning to his mother, asked in great suspense: "Mother, what did Mr. Rector write to you? Have the plum-thieves been discovered?"

"I do not think that they have brought his decision about, but I am sure they hastened it. Read the letter," said his mother, handing it to him.

"That is not so bad," Bruno said after reading it. "As soon as you send me to town I shall be rid of them at last, and I won't have to bother about them any more. You know, mother, that all they care about is to do mean and nasty things."

"But they will go to town, too, and then you will be thrown together. There won't be anybody then who cares for you and will listen to you," the mother lamented.

"Do not worry, mother, the town is big and we won't be so close together. I'll keep far enough away from them, you may be sure. Don't let it trouble you," Bruno reassured her.

Kurt was so much occupied at lunch with his own plans and ideas that he never even noticed when his favorite dessert appeared on the table. Lippo, seriously looking at him, said quite reproachfully, "Now you don't even see that we have apple-dumpling." Such an indifference seemed wrong to the little boy.

But Kurt even swallowed the apple-dumpling absent-mindedly. After lunch he begged his mother's permission to be allowed to leave immediately, because he still had so much to talk over with his friends. "I'll tell you all about it afterwards, mother. Be sure that I am doing something right that ought to be done," he reassured her. "If only I can go now." Having obtained permission, he shot away, and arriving at the school-house, flew into the midst of a crowd of boys. But before their plan could be carried out the children were obliged to sit two whole hours on the school-benches. It truly seemed to-day as if they would never end.

Lux, the sexton's boy, who preferred pulling the bell-rope and being violently drawn up by it to sitting in school, tapped his neighbor's sleeve.

"How late is it, Max?" he asked.

"I don't know."

"Max," Lux whispered again, "the second expedition will be more fun than the first. I look forward to it more, don't you?"

"You can look forward to the shame-bench if you don't keep quiet," Max retorted, squinting with his eyes in the direction of the teacher.

The latter had actually directed his eyes to the side where the whisperers sat. Lux, bending over his book, kept quiet at last. Finally the longed-for hour came and in a few minutes the whole swarm was outside. With a great deal of noise, but in a quick and pretty orderly fashion they now formed a procession, which began to move in the direction of Apollonie's little house. Here a halt was made. Kurt, climbing to the top of a heap of logs, which lay in the pathway, stood upright, while the others grouped themselves about him. Apollonie opened the window a little, but hid behind it, for she was wondering what was going on. Loneli stood close behind her. She had just come back breathlessly, for she had heard that a procession was coming towards her grandmother's house.

"Mrs. Apollonie," Kurt cried out with loud voice, "two whole classes from school have come to you to tell you that it was not Loneli's fault when she had to sit on the shame-bench. It only happened because her character is so good. Out of pure politeness she answered a question somebody asked her. When the teacher wanted to know who was chattering, she honestly accused herself. She did not tell him that she answered a question in fear of accusing somebody else. We wanted to tell you all about it so that you won't think you have to be ashamed of Loneli. We think and know that she is the friendliest and most obliging child in school."

"Long live Loneli!" Lux suddenly cheered so that the whole band involuntarily joined him. "Long live Loneli!;" it sounded again and the echo from the castle-mountain repeated, "Loneli."

Apollonie opened the window completely, and putting out her head, cried: "It is lovely of you, children that you don't want Loneli disgraced. I thank you for justifying her. Wait a minute. I should like to do you a favor, too."

With that Apollonie disappeared from the window. Soon after she came out by the door with a large basket of fragrant apples on her arm. Putting it in front of the children, she said encouragingly, "Help yourselves."

"Good gracious," cried out Lux, with one of the juicy apples between his teeth, "I know these. They only grow in the castle-garden, on the two trees on the right, in the corner by the fence. Do you know that, Kurt," he said confidentially, "I only wonder how she could get hold of such a basket full, you know, without being--you know--" With this he made the unmistakable motion of Mr. Trius with his tool of correction.

"What on earth do you mean?" Kurt cried out full of indignation. "Mrs. Apollonie did not need to steal them. Mr. Trius certainly could give her a few baskets of apples for all the shirts she sews and mends for him."

"Oh, I see, that is different," said Lux, now properly informed.

In the shortest time the huge basket was emptied of its delicious apples and the whole band had dispersed after many exclamations of thanks. They all ran home and Kurt outran them all. It was important now to do his home-work as speedily as possible, as the second expedition was to take place a little later. When he reached the front door he noticed that Mrs. Knippel was coming up behind him.

Running ahead quickly, he flung open the living-room door and called in, "Take Maezli out of the way or else something horrible will happen again."

After saying this he ran away. Bruno and Mea, who were busy in the room with their work, did not find it necessary to follow Kurt's command. If he found it so necessary, why didn't he do it himself, they thought, remaining seated. Maezli had risen rapidly and looked towards the door with large expectant eyes, wondering what was going to happen. Mrs. Knippel now entered.

"Why does something horrible always happen when Mrs. Knippel comes?" Maezli asked in a loud voice.

Mea, quickly getting up, went out of the door, pulling Maezli after her; to explain her hasty retreat, she said that she wanted to fetch her mother. She simply had to take that horrible little Maezli out of the way; who could know what she might say next. She always brought forward her most awful ideas when it was least suitable. The mother, who was on the way already, entered just when Mea was running out with Maezli. Bruno also slipped quickly after them. He had only waited for his mother's appearance in order to fly.

"Your children are certainly very peculiar," the district attorney's wife began. "I have to think so every time I see them. What do all your admonitions help, I should like to know? Nature will have its way! Not one of my children has ever been so impertinent, to say the least, as your little daughter is already."

"I am very sorry you should have to tell me that," Mrs. Maxa replied. "Isn't it possible that the child should have unconsciously said an impertinence? I hope you have never had a similar experience with my older children."

"No, I could not say that," Mrs. Knippel answered. "But I should say that all of them have inherited the love of preaching, especially your daughter Mea. Children can be unlike by disposition without its being necessary that one of them should constantly make sermons to the other."

"My children are very often of different opinions, but I could not say that they preach much to each other," said Mrs. Maxa.

"It is certainly Mea's habit to do so, and that is why she is not able to keep peace with her friends. I suppose you received a letter from our Rector telling you of the refusal to teach the boys any further."

This was said with a less severe intonation.

Mrs. Maxa confirmed the statement.

"So the change we have looked forward to has really come," the visitor continued, "and my husband agrees with me that prompt action should be taken. He is going to the city to-morrow; in fact, he has left already in order to visit his sister on the way. He will look for a suitable, attractive home in town that the three boys can move into next fall."

"You do not mean to tell me, Mrs. Knippel, that your husband is ordering living-quarters for Bruno, too?" Mrs. Maxa said in consternation.

"Oh, yes, and this is why my husband has sent me here, to let you know how glad he is to do it for you," the attorney's wife said soothingly. "He was positively sure that you would be glad if he decided and ordered everything to suit himself and you."

"But, Mrs. Knippel, I am not prepared for this. I have not even spoken to my brother about it. You know very well that he is the children's guardian."

Mrs. Maxa was quite unable to hide her excitement.

"You can be reassured, for we have thought of that, too," the visitor said with a slightly superior smile. "My husband's sister does not live very far from Mr. Falcon in Sils. So he planned to visit your brother and talk the plan over with him."

This calmed Mrs. Maxa a trifle, for her brother knew already how it stood between the three comrades and how little she wanted them to live together. But she could not help wondering why these people were trying to force the boys to live together.

"I do not really understand why the boys should have to live together," she said with animation; "they do not profess to feel much friendship for each other, and never seek each other out. You yourself, Mrs. Knippel, do not seem to get a very good impression from my children's ways. I do not see why you wish your sons to live with mine at all."

"It is a matter of decorum," the attorney's wife replied, "and my husband agrees with me. What would people in town say if the sons of the two best families here, who have always studied together, should not live together? Everybody would think that something special had happened between the families. Both parties will only gain in respect by joining."

"I do not believe that people in the city will be interested in what the three boys are doing," said Mrs. Maxa, smiling a little.

That same moment the door was flung wide open. With a triumphant face as if she wanted to say, "Just look whom I bring you here," Maezli stood on the threshhold leading Apollonie in. The latter hastily retreated.

"No, no, Maezli," she said quite frightened, "you should have told me that there was company."

Mrs. Knippel had risen to take her departure: "It seems to me that other visitors are greeted very joyfully by your children. Well, I must say they have rather odd tastes," she said, walking towards the door.

"Apollonie is a very old friend of ours. All the children love her very much. They may have inherited this attachment, though," Mrs. Maxa replied with a smile.

"I only want to say one more word," said the lady turning round before stepping outside the door. "The scene your son Kurt enacted to-day in front of Apollonie's cottage with his crowd of miscellaneous friends can only be called a vulgar noise."

But Mrs. Maxa did not yet know what Kurt had done. The visitor turned to go now, as it seemed not worth her while to waste words about it. As soon as the field was clear, Maezli rushed out of a hiding-place, pulling Apollonie with her. The old woman was terribly apologetic about having gone into the room. When she had told Maezli that she wanted to see her mother, the little girl had taken her there without any further ado. She informed the Rector's widow that she had come to her with a quite incredible communication.

Mrs. Maxa found it necessary at this point to interrupt her friend. She had noticed that Maezli was all ears to what was coming.

"Maezli, go and play with Lippo till I come," she said.

"Please tell me all about it afterwards, Apollonie," was Maezli's instruction before going to do as she was bid.

Apollonie's communication took a considerable time. She had just left when the family sat down to a belated supper.

Kurt swallowed his meal with signs of immoderate impatience. As soon as possible he rushed away, after having given his promise not to come home late. The friends that were to join him in this expedition had to be sought out first. When he neared the meeting place, he felt a little disappointed. In the twilight he could see that there was a smaller number assembled than he had hoped for. This certainly was not the crowd he had had together at noon when at least all the boys had promised to take part in his new enterprise.

"They were afraid, they were afraid," all voices cried together. Kurt heard now, while each screamed louder than the other that many boys and girls had left when the darkness was beginning to fall. Among the few that were left there were only four girls.

"It doesn't matter," said Kurt. "There are enough people still. Whoever is afraid may leave. We must start, though, because we have rather far to go. We are not going up the well-known path, because Mr. Trius watches for apple-hunters there till midnight, I think. That suits us exactly, for he must not hear us. We are going up to the woods at the back of the castle. First, we'll sing our challenge, then comes the pause, to give the ghost enough time, then again and after that for the third and last time. If there really is a ghost, he will have appeared by then. You can understand that he won't let himself be teased by us. So when he hasn't come, we can tell everybody what we did. Then they'll see that it is only a superstition and that there is no wandering ghost in Wildenstein. Forward now!"

The little crowd set out full of spirits and eagerness for the adventure, for Kurt had clearly shown them that there could be no ghost. To go up there and sing loudly to a non-existent ghost was capital fun. Furthermore, they looked forward to boasting of their daring deed afterwards. Faster and faster they climbed, so that only half of the usual time was taken in reaching their destination. It was dark at first, but the moon suddenly came out from behind the clouds, cheerfully lighting up the fields.

Having reached the rear of the castle hill, they hurried up the incline and into the pinewoods, where the trees stood extremely close together. This made it very dark, despite the fact that the wood was small. Soon clouds covered the moon, and the little band became stiller and stiller. Here and there one of the children sneaked off and did not reappear. Three of the girls, after mysteriously whispering together, were gone, too, and with them several more stole away, for there was a strange rustling in the bushes. Kurt with Lux and his enterprising sister Clevi were at the extreme front.

When it became very still, Kurt turned around.

"Come along! Where are you all?" he called back.

"We are coming," several voices answered from some children immediately behind him. It was Max, Hans and Simi, and then Stoffi and Rudi behind them, but they were all. Kurt halted.

"Where is the whole troup?" asked Kurt. "Let us wait till they catch up. We must all stay together up there."

But none followed. All the answer Kurt got to his question was the screaching of an owl.

"Oh, they've gone, they were afraid," said Max. "They were there, though, when we came into the woods."

"The cowards!" Clevi cried indignantly,

"To be afraid of trees! That certainly is funny."

"Well, we aren't afraid anyway; otherwise we shouldn't be here any more. Call to those who are gone," Max called back.

"Come on now, come!" Kurt commanded. "There are eight of us left to sing, so we must all sing very loud."

On they went speedily till they could see the end of the woods. One of the gray towers was peering between the trees. They had at last reached their goal.

"Here we stop!" said Kurt, "but we must not go outside the woods. The Wildenstein ghost might otherwise step up to us, if he walks around the terrace. Here we go!"

Kurt began and all the others vigorously joined him:

   Come out, you ghost of Wildenstein!
     For we are not afraid,
   We've come here in the bright moonshine
     To sing the song we've made
   Come out, come out, and leave your den;
     You'll never scare the folks again.

Everything was quiet roundabout, only the night wind was soughing in the old pine-trees. Between them there was a clear view of the terrace, which the moon was now flooding with light; the space before the castle lay peaceful and deserted.

"We must sing again," said Kurt. "He didn't hear us. If he doesn't give us an answer this time we'll tell him what we know. Then we'll sing fearfully loud:

   Hurrah! We have a certain sign,
   There is no ghost in Wildenstein.

   "Then we'll start again."

Clevi, who was gifted with a far-carrying voice, began:

   "Come out, you ghost of Wildenstein!"

And the boys with voices of thunder chimed in:

   "For we are not afraid."

"Just look! Who is coming there? Who can it be?" said Kurt, staring at the terrace.

An incredibly tall figure, which could not possibly be human, was wandering across the terrace with slow steps. It could not be a tree either, for it slowly moved over towards the woods. Did he really see straight, or was it the moonlight which was throwing a flitting shadow.

That moment Max, who was very big, turned about and fled. The four others followed headlong, leaving only Lux and Clevi beside Kurt.

The horrible figure came nearer and nearer, and it could now be clearly discerned. Full moonlight fell on the armor he was garbed in and made it, as well as the high helmet with waving plumes, glitter brightly. A long mantle fell from his shoulders down to his high riding boots, half hiding his fearful figure. Could this be a human creature? No, impossible! No living man could be as enormous as that. With measured steps the apparition walked silently towards the pine trees. Here the three singers stood horror-stricken, not uttering a sound.

Lux, like one crazed, suddenly rushed headlong away between the trees and down the hill. Clevi once more looked at the approaching figure with wide-open eyes. Before following her brother she wanted to see exactly what the knight looked like.

Kurt was left quite alone, and still the fearful creature stalked nearer. With a desperate leap he sprang to one side and left the woods abruptly. Hurrying towards the meadow, he ran down the mountain, leaped over first one hedge and then a second. Then he flew on till he stood in the little garden at home where a peaceful light from the living-room seemed to greet him.

Breathing deeply, he ran in and his mother met him at the door.

"Oh, is it you, Kurt?" she said kindly. "But you are a little late after all. Was it so hard to leave the beautiful moonlight? Or was it such fun rushing about? But, Kurt, you are entirely out of breath. Come sit down a moment with me. After that you have to go to bed; all the others have gone already."

Usually Kurt would have adored being able to sit alone with his mother and have all her attention directed towards him. This he could not enjoy now. Might not his mother ask him further details about his walk? So he said that he preferred to go to bed right away, and his mother understood that he was glad to get to rest after running about so ceaselessly. Only when Kurt lay safely and quietly in bed could he think over what had happened and how cowardly he had acted.

After all, his mother had clearly told him that there was no ghost in Wildenstein. Whom then, had he seen in armor and helmet and with a long mantle? It could not have been Mr. Trius, because he was a short, stout person, whereas the apparition was a tree-high figure. Might it be a sentinel at the castle who was ordered to go about? May be the old castle-barons had always wished an armed sentinel to keep watch. If only he had not run away! He could have let the sentinel walk up to him and then he could have told him of his intention. The sentinel could only have been pleased by his endeavor to get rid of such an old superstition. If only he had not run away!

Oh, yes, now that Kurt was safely under cover and Bruno's breathing beside him spoke of his big brother's nearness, it seemed easy enough to act bravely! If only he had done it! The thing he could not explain to himself was how anybody could be so horribly tall. That was hardly credible. Kurt felt at bottom quite sure that it was impossible for anybody to look like that.

"If only I could have told mother about it!" he sighed. But he felt dreadfully ashamed. She had absolutely forbidden him troubling himself about this matter. Even with his intention to get rid of the talk he had acted against her command. Well, and what had he accomplished? More than ever the whole village would say to-morrow that the ghost of Wildenstein was wandering about again. Furthermore he did not know how to gainsay it. If it only had not been so huge!

When the mother stepped up to her children's bedside later on as usual, she stopped a little while before Kurt. Hearing him moaning in his sleep, she thought he was ill.

"Kurt," she said quietly, "does something hurt you?"

He woke up. "Oh, mother," he said, seizing her hand, "is it you? I thought the ghost of Wildenstein was stretching out his enormous arm towards me!

"You were dreaming; don't think about such things in daytime," the mother said kindly. "Have you forgotten your evening prayer after the excitements of the day?"

"Yes, I had so much to think about that I forgot it," Kurt admitted.

"Say it now, then you will fall asleep more quietly," said the mother. "But please, Kurt, never forget that God hears our prayers and comforts and calms us only when we open our hearts entirely to him. You know, Kurt, don't you, that we must hide nothing from him?"

Kurt moaned "Yes" in a very low voice.

After giving him a good-night kiss the mother withdrew.