Chapter V. Upon Unsafe Paths.
 

After this evening, Dietrich was scarcely ever able to go on his walk alone. Blasi had always some pretext for joining him, and when Jost found out that regularly every evening his friend took the same walk at the same hour, he too discovered that he had a great deal to tell him, and to consult him about. The two accompanied him through the wood, and when they emerged from it on the other side, they usually saw a graceful figure coming along the white road that led up the hill from Fohrensee. Then without a word on the subject, as by tacit agreement, they stopped, shook hands, and separated; the other two turned back toward the village, and Dietrich went on. They felt instinctively that this was the best thing to do. Dietrich, certainly, found out that his companions were not to Veronica's mind, when one evening, the three being so engaged in talk that they had not noticed that they were later than usual, Veronica came into the wood before they left it, and she recognized Blasi and Jost, although they turned quickly back.

"They can't have the best of consciences," said Veronica, as Dietrich joined her; "if they had only straight-forward business on hand, why did they take themselves off so hastily, as soon as I came in sight?"

"Can't you understand that we may have something to talk about, that we do not wish you to hear?" asked Dietrich.

The girl was silent a few moments, and then she said, rather seriously,

"It would suit me far better, if you were not so much in company with those two fellows. Blasi is absolutely idle, and cannot be nice, and Jost is really bad; you can see that in his face. He never dares to look me full in the eye; he always avoids a direct glance, as if he feared that his eyes would betray him. I believe he is thoroughly false."

"No, no, you should not judge him so harshly," said Dietrich, good-humoredly. "He is not what you think him; he is a good friend to me, and has already taught me a great deal that I should never have got at without his help. He is a very clever fellow."

Veronica let the matter drop, but it was plain that she had not changed her opinion.

The days grew longer and brighter. The wood was filled with sweeter perfumes evening after evening, as the two friends sauntered along their homeward path, and in each young heart the feeling grew and ripened, that still sweeter and more beautiful days were to come.

One afternoon in May, Veronica paced leisurely along the white hill-road, her eyes fixed on the tall oak on the borders of the wood, which marked the place where the foot-path came out upon the high road. Everything was quiet; not a human being in sight. She reached the spot and looked anxiously into the wood. She listened; she peered between the trees; all was solitude. The tree-tops, softly murmuring, rocked gently to and fro, and through the branches she saw the sunset glow. For the first time, the young girl entered the wood alone. It was quite dark, in there. She passed along with rapid step, among the solemn pines, hastening faster and faster, as the trees seemed to draw together about her. When she came out upon the open pathway, she saw Dietrich coming across the field in hot haste. He was breathless when he reached her.

"I don't like to have you come alone through the wood, Veronica," he said, "I thought I should be in time, but I could not get rid of those two fellows. I tried to get away two or three times, but they always had something more to say, and kept me."

"Where were you, Dietrich?"

"They had some business with me; that is, Jost had something to tell me, and Blasi was there too. Jost did not care to speak of it on the open street, and so we went into the Rehbock; and that is what made me so late. Why, what's the matter, Veronica? Are you ill?"

She was as pale as a ghost.

"What! You've been to the Rehbock, Dietrich!" she exclaimed in evident distress. "Oh, don't go there! Please don't go to that place again!"

"Oh, now we are to have the old story over again, are we?" said the young man, laughing, "you have taken some foolish whim into your head; you really don't know why yourself. What's your prejudice against that house in particular?"

"I do know why; and it is no whim," said Veronica, earnestly. "I will tell you all about it. That house has been a terror to me ever since I can remember anything. We were both so young that you probably do not recollect it at all. We both went with mother to the doctor's, but you didn't go into the house, I remember now. Mother told the doctor that my father was killed at the Rehbock. I have never forgotten it since. I am constantly seeing him lying dead before my eyes; lying there struck down dead. I often dream about it, and in my dreams I am there--and--and sometimes when I look at his dead form in my dreams, it is not my father any more, but it is you--you, Dietrich, whom they have struck down dead at the Rehbock."

Dietrich was going to laugh at these words, but he glanced into Veronica's face and was silent. She was more in earnest than he had thought. He tried to quiet and reassure her, by saying that it was only a dream, and nothing to be afraid of. The dream came naturally enough, because she was always dwelling upon the tragedy of her father's death, and in dreams every one knows that faces are always changing. His explanation, however, did not make much impression upon Veronica. She said no more about it; but not all Dietrich's efforts were sufficient to chase the shadows from her face that evening, although he exerted himself to be even more amusing than usual. Gertrude observed her silence, as they sat about the table, and looked anxiously at her. When they had separated for the night, Dietrich went into his mother's room to have a talk with her. He told her what Veronica had said, and begged her to reason with the young girl and urge her to lay aside these groundless fears which had taken possession of her. He represented to his mother, that of course he sometimes had things to talk over with his companions, and that there surely was no harm in their going to the Rehbock together for their conversations, and he begged her to make Veronica see the whole affair in a reasonable light. Gertrude was shocked to find that the child had heard and understood what she had said to the doctor, and distressed that she had taken it so much to heart. She promised to speak to Veronica, but she also cautioned her son against forming an intimacy with Jost and Blasi. Dietrich cheerfully gave his word; declaring that he was not particularly fond of their company. The mother, however, on further consideration, decided to say nothing on the subject to Veronica, for she thought the whole thing would be the sooner forgotten if not spoken of, and she believed it unwise to stir up the terrors of the past.

The next afternoon, Dietrich left home much earlier than usual, determined not to be belated again, and hoping to escape altogether his too insistent companions. But scarcely had he reached the garden gate when he came upon Blasi, who was lying in wait for him. Dietrich tried to pass him quickly, and to show him that his company was not desired, but in vain Blasi had not been waiting round half an hour to be turned off like that. He explained that he was in worse trouble than ever to-day, and wished to borrow more money than ever before; promising, of course, to pay it back very soon; "that is, as soon as possible," he added.

"Oh yes, well, when will it be possible, I wonder. How much have you paid me back, as yet, since you began to borrow of me?" said Dietrich angrily. "Let me go, Blasi, I've no time to spare."

But Blasi went along by his side, and before he had done talking, Jost joined them and held Dietrich fast by the other arm.

"Come, come," he cried, "I have something to tell you that will make you open your eyes, I guess. I came in a hurry on purpose not to miss you. I've just come from the Rehbock, and I told them to keep the little back room for us, so that we can talk quietly, without danger of being interrupted. Come along, I say."

"I will not," said Dietrich, freeing his arm from the other's detaining grasp. "I haven't time, and I don't believe you have anything special to tell me, either. I must go." And Dietrich strode away; but Jost followed him.

"Don't be such a fool," he called out angrily, "can't you listen when I tell you that I know something decidedly to your advantage. Something that you'll be glad to know. You are running away because of her, and it is something that will be good for her as well as for you. So do stand still, and don't go scampering off as if the gamekeepers were after you!" But Dietrich did not stop.

"What do you know about her, or her good?" he asked furiously. "Mind your own business and let us alone."

As Jost had his own interest in winning the young fellow over, he controlled himself, and said in most soothing tones,

"Dietrich, I am your friend. Some day you will be very grateful to me. As you are in such a hurry, I will not stop you now; only promise me to come over bye-and-bye for a few minutes to the Rehbock; there's a good fellow, and you will not be sorry. Will you come?"

"Well, I've no particular objection to that," said Dietrich, and ran off as fast as he could.

Blasi, who had kept pace with the other two, seeing that there was no chance for him now, turned back with Jost, and the two went into the Rehbock together.

Dietrich met Veronica quite the other side of the wood. He did his best to rouse her from her silent mood, and to restore her to better spirits; but he found it impossible to efface the impression she had received the evening before. The painful memory had been too deeply stamped upon her mind, to be easily wiped out.

When the little family had bade each other good-night, after their usual affectionate conversation, Dietrich hesitated about keeping his half-made promise. He did not want to go; yet Jost's words, that the affair touched her as nearly as it did him, had made their intended impression, and though it went sadly against his grain to know that Jost dared even to think about Veronica and her interests at all, still he could not help wondering what it was all about. Suddenly his resolution was taken; he turned about, went down stairs and softly left the house.

Jost was standing in the doorway of the Rehbock, looking out into the night to see if Dietrich was coming. They went at once into the little back room. Blasi was there, sitting behind a big empty bowl; indeed he never sat long behind a full one, for as the bowl was there to be emptied he thought the quicker it was done the better.

"I'm glad you have come," he cried out, "for we've run quite dry here."

Dietrich perceived that he was expected to counteract the dryness; so he ordered some beer, and when this was supplied Jost began in a cautious tone,

"I have something to say to you, Dietrich, that I don't care for those outside to hear. Blasi can stay, because he is our comrade."

"And because he can be made useful," said Dietrich readily, for he knew of old that Jost was in the habit of rushing Blasi forward, where he did not dare to go himself.

"I don't know about that," said Jost, "but now listen to me. Do you know how a fellow who hasn't so much as a penny in his purse, can in one night get enough to build a big stone house, like the one the landlord of the lion has in Fohrensee, and make himself a gentleman all at once? I know how; I know somebody who has explained it all to me, and I tell you, Dietrich, you have only to say the word, and you can do the same, and give up the whole saddler's business. You can afford to risk something; you're not stupid; and with you it will all go right in a twinkling."

"Do you mean by card-playing?" asked Dietrich rather contemptuously, for he had made up his mind about that long ago.

"No indeed, something very different. It is done on paper. You have nothing to do but put some money down, and you can win two or three times as much in no time."

"And lose four times, I suppose?"

"There's no losing about it;" said Jost confidently, "You're sure to win in the end, if you keep on long enough. It doesn't signify if you do lose a little at first--you can afford to wait."

"I think my trade is surer of winning;" said Dietrich.

"Oh yes, sure enough!" said Jost scornfully. "It is a pretty sight to see a fellow like you, sitting there year after year on the saddler's bench, scraping all the skin off his hands; and with all the income you have, too! why in ten years you won't have as much as will build you a house such as you want, and it would take ten years more to become a gentleman; and she'd like it a great deal better to have something nice now, and not wait till she is fifty years old."

Dietrich was red with anger.

"What business is it of yours to be forever thinking and talking about her?" he blazed out. "You have no concern with her whatever; just keep yourself to what you're fit for."

"Why do go on as you do?" asked Jost with a knowing wink. "Do you suppose it never enters anybody's head to ask why you keep on working and delving as if you liked it? Can't we guess who you're doing it all for?"

"And it's not at all out of the way to be thinking about her, either," interposed Blasi, "there's another ready enough to do that if there were any chance for him," and he winked significantly at Jost. Jost took no notice of the insinuation, but went on, addressing himself to Dietrich.

"There's no danger for you in this plan. We will share losses and gains alike, and if we do not like it we can leave off when ever we choose. But I don't see why we shouldn't like it, when we can earn so much with so little trouble, and without working from morning till night. There goes somebody now, who has all he wants, I should like to be in his place!"

A wagon was rattling by as he spoke, and its occupant was urging the galloping horse faster and faster along the road.

"That's the doctor," said Dietrich, looking out; "he has had to work hard enough and is still at it. He must be going to visit a very sick patient; he would not be driving at that rate for anything else. It is late for the old gentleman to be out."

"Work!" said Jost, "well, I speak for that kind of work; sitting in a chaise behind a horse. It's another part of speech to have to work with one's hands, as we do."

"The doctor has to work with his hands too, I'm sure of that. And besides, we have our evenings to ourselves, while he may be kept at it till eleven o'clock at night, as he is this evening, and later."

"Oh drop all this stupid talk and give us an answer; yes or no. Will you be a fool and go on pricking your fingers over your work, or will you join me and have things comfortable without working at all? Anybody but you would be grateful to me for the chance I offer you. I came to you with it because of our old friendship. I know plenty of fellows who would jump at the chance. You can think it over till tomorrow, and then I'm sure you'll be glad to accept. I'll meet you here to-morrow evening, and bring some one with me who will explain it all clearly."

Dietrich agreed to think about it till to-morrow, and now, in high good-humor and increasing confidence in the coming good-fortune, he helped Blasi and Jost to empty the bowl, in a toast to the success of their new projects.

It was Veronica's habit to work on her embroidery for some time after going up to her bedroom, and this evening she was so much interested in her work, that she did not observe the flight of time, until she heard the clock strike one. She put by her sewing, and hastened to prepare for bed, as she must be up and stirring again by five o'clock. Presently she heard the outer door opened softly, and then closed from the inside. She blew out her light and gently opened her bed-room door. The moon lighted up the passageway with a faint beam. Some one came stealing up the staircase with noiseless steps. She saw that it was Dietrich. He went cautiously into his room and closed his door.

Veronica shut her door, and sat down upon her bed. All the blood seemed to rush to her heart and she could not stir. She knew in a moment that Dietrich, whom she had believed to be asleep long ago, had been visiting in secret the hated Rehbock. She sat some minutes motionless on her bed, in a kind of dull pain. Then she arose slowly, lighted her lamp again, took out her work and with nervous fingers drove on her needle, which flew faster and faster through the white cloth. She did not sleep at all that night.

Nor did Dietrich fall asleep easily. His thoughts were busy and he could not come to any decision. What should he do?

If he could become rich at once, without working any more, why shouldn't he do it? Would it be best to consult his mother? No, that would upset everything. He was sure that his mother was too firmly wedded to the old ideas about ways of getting a living, to listen to any new-fangled methods of making money without work.

And Veronica?

Certainly not Veronica, who valued work above everything, and who indeed loved it so well, that she could not imagine that any one should ever wish to escape it.

But if he were successful, both his mother and Veronica would profit by his good fortune as much as himself. Why couldn't he go on with his own plans in his own way? Why need he ask leave of Veronica?

Before he slept, Dietrich had decided to meet Jost the next evening, and close with his offer.

When Gertrude came down stairs early in the morning, she found the breakfast ready, and Veronica dressed to go out.

"Wait just a moment," said the mother, "Dietrich will be down directly; I hear him coming."

"I must be off," replied Veronica. She went towards the door, but turned before going out. Her cheeks were flaming.

"Mother," she said, and her voice trembled, "in God's name, forbid him to go to that dreadful place. He did not come home till one o'clock last night." And she vanished. Gertrude gazed after her in surprise.

When Dietrich came down, he asked in his usual bright fashion, after Veronica, and when his mother with some anxiety told him what the girl had said, he made his explanation with such a frank, unembarrassed manner, that her fears were quieted; for it was plain that he had nothing upon his conscience. He said that he knew his mother would approve of his helping a friend in need, and not the less if in so doing he should also help himself. It was a scheme of this kind that he had been talking over, the night before. Jost had to work very hard to make both ends meet, and Dietrich thought that if by putting some money into his scheme, he could help his old acquaintance to more profit with less labor, and at the same time gain by it himself, his mother would be the last to blame him.

Gertrude was a soft-hearted woman. She answered her son that if there was nothing wrong about this business, it was certainly a good thing to help Jost, who had received nothing from his father, not even tools for his trade, and who had seemed to have everything against him.

"With you it was very different, my boy," she said in conclusion. "Your father left you an excellent business, and if you continue to work as you have done, you will be very well off in a few years. How kindly the good God has dealt with us, my son! We may hope for many happy days together!"

He agreed with her cordially, but he thought it as well not to unfold his plans to her any farther. He said to himself that he was not going to do anything wrong, certainly not; but his mother's ideas were a little old-fashioned, and she wouldn't understand his schemes. He would surprise her with his success.