Chapter VII. Erick Enlists in the Fighting Army
 

Meanwhile the sunny September had approached and everywhere the apples and pears were smiling down from the trees. Every morning one could see the Mayor of Upper Wood walk toward the hillside, where he had started a new vineyard where only reddish, sweet Alsatian grapes grew. The hillside lay toward the valley about a half-hour's walk below Upper Wood; but the walk was not too far for the Mayor to watch the growth of his grapes, for they were of the most delicious kind.

The Justice of Peace, Kaetheli's father, had also a small vineyard on that side, but of a much inferior kind, and when he sometimes went to see whether his grapes would ripen this year, he always found the Mayor there, and usually said, pointing to the latter's grapes: "A splendid plant."

And the Mayor answered: "I should think so. And this year will not be like last! Just let them come!" and with these words he held up his finger threateningly.

"If one only could get hold of one of that crowd," remarked the Justice of Peace, "so that one could make an example of him of what would happen to all the wicked fellows."

"I have prepared for that, Justice of Peace," the other answered, full of meaning. "The boldest of them will carry the reminder of the sweet grapes for weeks about with him and will be plainly marked."

This conversation had already been repeated several times, for both men had an especial interest in the topic. But they soon had to pass to more important things, for in these communities all kinds of things happen. At present all the inhabitants of the three places were in great tension and expectation about something which caused so much talk that they hardly found time to attend to their daily business. The Upper Wooders had bought an organ for their church, which was to be dedicated the following Sunday.

In the Middle Lot something was also taking place. Old Marianne was busy packing up, for she could no longer keep her cottage. Her work was not enough to pay the running expenses, so she was going down to Oakwood where she had a cousin who was glad to have her live with him. Now the question was, where the little stranger was to go, whom she had kept with her up till now. She wanted to stay over Sunday and attend the dedication, and on Monday she was going to lock up the house.

To the schoolchildren also the approaching festivity was an opportunity for much loud discussion. Two parties had naturally formed themselves, the church and the no-church party. For the one side wanted to attend church on Organ-Sunday, as they called the day for short, and listen to the organ; the other did not care anything about hearing the music, for they said they could hear the organ in the afternoon when they were obliged to go to Sunday school, and to attend church twice was too much. The main thing was that women would be sitting about everywhere with large baskets full of cake and unusually good cookies; these must be secured. The Middle Lotters especially were against the morning church service. To the surprise of all, big Churi voted for the church-going. He had brought it about that the great, long-prepared battle day was fixed for Organ-Sunday, although many voices voted against it, and there were still some that did not agree with the arrangement, for they were sure that on the feast-day much else was to be seen and heard. But Churi grew quite wild if anyone said a word against his plan, and they did not care to make him angry now, for no one could manage so many soldiers as he had to look after, and only thus could the victory be won. The Middle Lotters had naturally joined the Lower Wooders against the Upper Wooders and so they were now a large army. The Upper Wooders therefore made a new effort to get Edi for leader and to win the battle, for against such a large army only a well prepared battle-plan and a general well versed in war could save them, and Edi was the only one who knew how to do both.

But he remained steadfast, although it almost choked him, for all the brilliant examples of the small Greek army against the enormous hordes of Persians stood before him, and he had to swallow them all down, for he knew his father's aversion to such warlike doings and then--on Organ-Sunday!

Churi had ordered that his whole army should come together on the Friday before Organ-Sunday in the Middle Lot. So the whole crowd collected on the evening fixed, and there was an indescribable noise. But big Churi shouted the loudest and explained to them the arrangements of the day: first, all would go to church, and during that time, he and his officers would go to find out the best place for camping and for the battle.

"Ah, so, Churi!" a little fellow in the crowd shouted, "that is why you voted for church, that you might do outside what you want to!"

Churi cried, much vexed: "That must be on account of discipline; if you do not want to go, then don't, and the Upper Wooders will pay you for it." This threat was effective, just as Churi wanted it to be.

The whole army should not come together until after the organ dedication was over in the morning, and the midday meal which followed at once, was finished; and in the morning only Churi with his officers should march out to arrange all places and positions. So he had planned. The officers whom he had chosen were all his good friends, the toughest Middle Lotters that could be found.

About this time a year ago, he had, with the very same boys, broken into the Mayor's vineyard and stolen all his very best, fine Alsatian grapes. He intended to do this again with his confidential friends, for it had never been found out who had stolen the grapes, although they had tried in all the three communities to find the culprits, and this had greatly encouraged Churi and his allies. But he knew how careful the Mayor had been this year, and he knew very well of his daily walks and that in the afternoon his wife also took a walk in the direction of the vineyard, and in the evening they often took the same walk together; so that the culprits had not any day been sure of them. But on Organ-Sunday no one would be outside--of that Churi was convinced; therefore he had arranged everything in view of that, for although there would be an investigation, all the many Lower Wooders and Middle Lotters would be in that region, and the culprits would never be found out from among such a large crowd.

After Churi had told his army of his battle plans, they dispersed in all directions. A number of spectators had gathered around the warriors, every child in Middle Lot, down to the two-year-olds. Ahead of all was Kaetheli, who was always on the spot when something was to be seen or heard. When she left the meadow, she saw Erick standing near the hedge, where he had stood for a long time watching the tumultuous crowd. Kaetheli ran to him. "This will be such a fight as never before," she called to him with admiration. "Don't you want to be in it, Erick?"

"No," he answered drily.

"Why not?"

"Because they act as I do not care to act."

"Not? You are a peculiar boy, you are always alone. Do you know where you are going Monday when Marianne goes away from here?"

"No."

"You are going to be auctioned off. My father has said so."

"What is that?" asked Erick, who now listened more attentively to Kaetheli.

"Oh, there are a crowd of people in the room and they bid on you, and whoever bids the lowest gets you."

"That is stupid," said Erick.

"Why is it stupid?"

"Because they would get more money if they gave me to him who offers the most."

"No, you did not understand. You are not going to be sold, quite the reverse; he who gets you also gets the money--do you understand now?"

"Who gives him the money?"

"Well, that is not a person, as you think," Kaetheli explained. "Do you see, there is a money box with money in it for the people who are poor and miserable and homeless."

Erick grew purple.

"I am not going to be auctioned," he said defiantly.

"Yes, indeed, Erick, that cannot be helped. One has to obey before one is confirmed. If you do not obey, then someone just puts you on his shoulder and takes you to the auction room."

After Kaetheli had instructed Erick in what was coming to him, she bade him good-night and went her way. Erick stayed on the same spot and did not move. He had become deathly pale and his blue eyes flashed defiance and indignation, which had never been seen in this sunny face. Thus Erick stood on the same spot when Churi came by on his way home.

"Have they made you angry, velvet panty? I never have seen you so mad," he exclaimed and stopped near the hedge.

He received no answer.

"You join us in the fight and strike hard; that will relieve your feelings."

Erick shook his head.

"Don't be such a sneak, and say something. The fellow who has made you wrathful will no doubt be there, then you can get at him."

"It is no boy," grumbled Erick.

"So, who then, perhaps Kaetheli?"

"I will not go to be auctioned," Erick burst out and his anger flashed as never before.

"Well, well, is that all. That is nothing," Churi thought. "You just come with us and you will forget the auction on the spot. Or are you afraid of the thrashing, you fine velvet pants? Do you know what? I could tell you something that would suit you?"

Churi had caught an idea: he had heard something of some danger that was lurking among the Mayor's grapes, and the others too knew something about it; so he reckoned that none of the others would go first and he himself would prefer to have some other fellow first find out whether a trap was laid somewhere, in which the first one would fall, while the rest would be warned. For this post of inspection Erick fitted splendidly.

"Well, will you?" he urged the silent Erick.

But the latter shook his head negatively.

"And if I help you so that you need not be auctioned, will you then?"

"How can you do that?" Erick asked doubtingly.

"As soon as I want to," boasted Churi. "Don't you know that my father is the sergeant here? He goes into every house along the whole mountain, far beyond Lower Wood, and he knows all the people and can place you where he likes. You only need to say what you want to do: take care of the cows, deliver letters, push little children along in their carriages--whatever you like best."

Erick had never heard lying, he did not know what it was. He believed word for word what the swaggering Churi told him. He considered a moment and then he asked: "What shall I have to do for that?"

"Something which you yourself will find more merry than anything you ever did. You can go with me and the officers in the morning. You are the scout and always go first to see whether the land is clear and safe for us and where we can best pitch our tents and give battle. But one thing I have to tell you: you have to obey me. I am the general, and if you do not do at once what I tell you, you suffer for it. First we go through a vineyard--"

"One cannot give battle there, nor camp," Erick interrupted.

"That makes no difference," Churi continued, "you listen to what I tell you. You have to go through the vineyard and not make a bit of noise, do you hear? And not run away, else--" Churi lifted his fist threateningly. "You must not tell anyone where we are going, do you hear?"

"I am not going," said Erick.

"Then go to the auction--that is the best thing for you; I am going now, good night."

But Churi nevertheless remained. The blood again rushed into Erick's cheeks. He hesitated a moment, then he asked: "If I go with you, are you sure that I can get there, where I deliver letters?"

"Of course you can," Churi grumbled.

"Then I will go."

"Give me your hand on it!"

Churi held out his hand and Erick laid his in it. Churi kept hold of the hand. "Promise that you will be there under the apple tree on the meadow at seven o'clock Sunday morning."

"I promise," said Erick.

Churi let go of his hand, said "Good night," and disappeared behind the cottage.

The news of the day spread with wonderful rapidity through the schools of the three parishes. The next evening, the evening before Organ-Sunday, every child in Upper and Lower Wood, and above all, in Middle Lot, knew that the quiet Erick all at once belonged to the rowdies; that he was not only going to fight with them in the Sunday battle, but that he was going with the worst rowdy, with Churi and his companions, early in the morning before church.

Sally came with swollen eyes to supper, for Kaetheli had informed her of everything: how the fine Erick, whom she would so gladly have taken into her home and her friendship, had fallen into the hands of the coarse and wicked Churi and would be ruined and led to do all kinds of wicked things by the bad boy. All this made her tender heart ache. She had gone, in the afternoon, to the solitary bench under the apple tree and had wept until supper time; for, in spite of deep thinking, she had not been able to find a way by which she could snatch Erick away from the bad companions.

Edi, too, wore a drawn face as though he lived on trouble and annoyance only, and his inner wrath goaded him to unpleasant speeches, for he hardly had taken his seat at table, when he looked across at Sally and said: "You can count to-morrow the blue bumps which your friend Erick will carry home with him, when he begins in the morning before church and serves under Churi."

Not much was needed to make Sally break out. "Yes, I know, Edi, that you would prefer to begin this evening and fight through the whole day to-morrow," she cried, half sobbing, half defiant, looking across the table, "if Papa had not forbidden it."

Edi became flushed, for it came into his mind how long he had searched for an example after which he might take part and yet hold his own before his father.

The latter looked earnestly at him and said: "Edi, Edi, I hope you will try not to be a Pharisee. It is a bad sign for the boy Erick that he has joined the fighters, moreover, and that he has made friends with the very worst rowdy. But, dear Sally, you need not knock your potatoes so roughly about your plate as if they were to blame for all the unpleasant things; eat them peacefully."

But Sally could not swallow anything more. When soon after Edi lay in his bed, he heaved a deep sigh and said: "Everything is over for me, but I will be glad for one thing, that tomorrow comes, because to-morrow is Sunday. You know what we get to-morrow, Ritz?"

"Sunday school."

"No, I don't mean that, I mean something nice."

"But Sunday school is nice."

"No, I don't mean that either, I mean something which one can use very well, when no other pleasure comes along."

"An oracle," Ritz said quickly, much contented with the delightful prospect.

"Ritz, you do guess such ridiculous things. I have told you that there are no more oracles. There will be apple-cake, that is what I meant," Edi said with a sigh, for now he saw again all the things for which he had wished so much more than apple-cake.

"And do you know, Edi," said Ritz, following his own train of thought, "to-morrow Sally will not be able to eat again because Erick gets his bumps; then we will also get her share, and that will make three pieces for each." With these words Ritz turned happily on his side and went to sleep.