Chapter VII. A Thunder Clap.
 

Blasi, the lounger, stood in his doorway in the clear sunshine of this lovely summer morning, both hands plunged deep into his pockets as was his wont, and looked about him as if to see whether everything in the outer world was the same as yesterday.

Judith came out to the well, carrying her water-jug on her head.

"Look out, Blasi, you are losing something," she cried. Blasi looked on the ground, turned about, and searched behind and before.

"I don't see anything," he said, and stuffed his hands deeper into his pockets.

"It's always so with me," said Judith, "when I've lost anything, I can't see it."

"Oh ho, you're making a fool of me again!"

"That's all the thanks I get for telling you that you are losing something, and I was just going to make you a present that is worth more than five francs to a fellow like you."

"What is it? Show it to me," said Blasi, with more animation.

"First I will tell you something, and then you shall have it," replied Judith. "Look here, Blasi, my sainted father used to say, "If you keep your hands out of your pockets they will get full, but if you keep them in, your pockets will be empty." Now, both your hands are in your pockets, so all that ought to go in is running to waste. Isn't that so?"

"Well, suppose it is," said Blasi, angrily. "Now give me what you promised me."

"I gave it to you this very minute. I said you'd better take your hands out of your pockets, and then your earnings would run in. That's good advice and worth more than five francs.

"What stuff! No one ever knows how to take you," grumbled Blasi.

"It wouldn't help you to take me, if you did not take your hands out too," said Judith, "but never mind, I have really something good for you," and Judith motioned to him to come nearer. "Would you like to have a nice well-washed shirt for Sunday? I will do one up for you if you will tell me something."

That was an offer worth listening to. Sunday was a wretched day for Blasi, for when he had turned his two shirts and worn them both on both sides, he had never a clean one for Sunday. He had no one to wash for him. His mother was dead, and his father had enough else to spend for, without the washing for a grown-up son. Blasi's money went for other things than washing, and he was not fond of doing it for himself.

The proposition was therefore very apropos. "Come a little nearer to the well; no one knows who may be behind those trees. Now listen; Can you tell me what is going wrong with Dietrich? He never whistles now, he never laughs, and his mother looks so sad, and she rarely speaks even to answer when spoken to. Something has happened to Dietrich."

"Yes, and keeps on happening; all sorts of things, too. But Jost can tell you more than I can. They sit together in the Rehbock half the night and more, too; long after everybody else has gone, there they sit in the little back room. At first they do just as other people do, they drink a little and then a little more, and Dietrich pays. But that's nothing to what it costs him afterwards. They do something with paper, he and Jost. Sometimes it is a lottery and then again something that they call speculating. I don't understand anything about it. Somebody comes over from Fohrensee and explains it to them. He does not belong there; but I guess you have seen him; he has fiery red hair, and red beard and red face. He has business in Fohrensee once a week, and lives the rest of the time down in the city; and he arranges everything down there, and then brings the account of gains and losses up to them; but it's a good deal more loss than gain. Dietrich puts in more money every time. Jost has nothing to put in but promises. He tells Dietrich all the time that presently the winnings will begin to flow in, and says that at first a fellow must expect to lose, so as to win all the more in the end, and that bye-and-bye it will all come back; with interest, of course. The red-haired man says yes to it all. Whenever I want to put something in, and ask Dietrich to lend me a little to try with, Jost acts as if he were the lord and master of the whole concern, and 'donkey' is the mildest name he calls me. I am just waiting though, till I can trip him up, and I'll do it with a vengeance too, so that he won't forget it all his life long."

"Now that is a good idea," said Judith. "You'd better tell him then, that you do it to pay your debts, and that it would be well for him to follow your example. Now you have told me enough. Bring me your shirt on Saturday, and I'll wash it for you."

Judith lifted her water-jug and was turning away, but Blasi detained her.

"Just wait one moment, I want to ask you a question. Do you think she will have him?"

The question seemed to interest Judith, for she stood stock still.

"Who? whom? what do you mean?"

"I mean Veronica and Jost. Do you think she will take him?" As Blasi spoke he came slowly nearer to Judith. "He has been saying some things lately, that made me think so."

"If you know anything more stupid than that, I should like to hear it," cried Judith very angry indeed; but she did not move away, for she wanted to hear all that Blasi had to say.

"I know what you mean," he went on, "but I am not so very stupid as you think. It certainly means something, when she is so changed. Jost says that she knows all that Dietrich has been about, and she is hot with anger against him because he has not told her about it himself. Jost says that if he only mentions Dietrich's name before her she looks like a wild-cat in a moment, and he says too that he has noticed for some time, that she has no objection to letting Dietrich see that she can get along very well without his help, and you know that she is capable of anything when she's angry."

"Well, this was the one drop wanting!" said Judith, and shouldering her jug she went off, snorting with anger, in such a rage that Blasi stood looking after her in stupid amazement, and muttered,

"I wonder if she wants to get him, too!"

Judith walked along, talking aloud to herself,

"Yes, she is! she is! she is capable of anything when she is angry!"

Now Judith had looked upon her neighbor's boy from his childhood up, as if he belonged to her. He was her prime, favorite and she meant to do well by him. She liked Veronica because she was such a steady girl at her needle, and because she would have nothing to say to any one but Dietrich. This very reserve however, was rather distasteful to Judith as regarded herself, but she liked it towards others. She had planned it all out that Dietrich should marry Veronica soon after the confirmation, that they should set up a pretty little establishment, and be her beloved neighbors. She meant to be their intimate friend and helper, to go freely in and out of their house, and to stand god-mother now and then. She would leave her property to the little ones. Now all this fine air-castle was overthrown and all her plans spoiled. Judith bounced violently into the kitchen and set her jug down with such a bang that the water spurted up into the air.

"And no one can get a word out of her, either; it is exactly as if all the oil had been burned out." This last remark referred to Gertrude, who had greatly altered during the last few months. She had no longer the cheerful expression that she had always been noted for. She had grown very quiet and silent. She even avoided her old and well-tried friend Judith, and if the latter showed a disposition to talk about her household matters or her children's future, Gertrude would give her to understand that she had no time to stop to talk.

Gertrude knew where Dietrich spent his evenings. She had expostulated with him about it more than once. He had answered that he must keep on there for awhile, till a certain undertaking which he had started with Jost was fairly under way. He assured her that this affair was certain to turn out all right, and that she herself would be surprised and satisfied at the result. He knew from some one who understood it, that it could not fail. He had to draw large sums several times for himself and also for Jost, but he was sanguine that in a short time it would all be paid back, with interest. Gertrude did not pretend to understand the business, but she saw that Dietrich believed it to be safe and profitable, and she knew that her son would not deceive her. Still she was haunted daily by a growing uneasiness, which was not diminished when she perceived that Veronica was gradually drawing away from her.

This state of things had all come about since that morning when the girl's beseeching words had fallen unheeded on the mother's ears; or at least Veronica believed them to have been unheeded, since they had worked no change in Dietrich's behavior.

Why it was that every day as evening came on, she felt so miserably anxious, Gertrude herself could scarcely understand. Poor Gertrude!

One night after she had gone to her room she heard her son leave the house with hasty steps. It had become a regular thing now. She had often said to herself, "Ah! how much longer will this go on?" but she tried hard to believe that it would soon come to an end, and her son would resume his former orderly and happy mode of life. But this evening she was so anxious that she could not stay in her bedroom. She went down into the garden.

The moon peeped out from between the flying clouds, and shone peacefully down upon the trees and the neat flower-beds. Gertrude seated herself upon a small bench under the apple tree, and gazed about the garden, all illuminated by the moonbeams. She had planted it all and cared for it with her own hands. She had done this as she did everything, carefully and with great painstaking, and it was all for her son's sake. His should be the pleasure and the profit of all. Why could he not be happy in it now? Why was she so worried about him? Dietrich was walking in steep and dangerous paths; that she was sure of, but he knew the straight road and would not his steps turn back to it again? Her thoughts went back to the days when her little Dieterli loved good and orderly conduct; it could not be that he had lost his love for it, that he did not still feel that in the right conduct of life lies inward and outward blessing. She recalled the evening of the day when her husband was borne from the house to his burial. She had taken the children by the hand and, stupefied with pain, was about to put them to bed, but Dieterli objected, saying,

"No, mother, no; it is not good to go to bed before you say your prayers."

Did her boy ever pray now? "Oh, Dieterli, my son, you are wandering away, but you know the way home," she said to herself, and she folded her hands in prayer, for her habit was to lay all her troubles before God, her Supporter and Comforter.

At this moment, she heard through the stillness loud shouts and cries, first at a distance, then nearer and nearer, until they grew into a wild tumult. Then many of the voices seemed to scatter in different directions while some sounded as if approaching the garden. A vague fear seized Gertrude. Three fellows shouting and calling, passed on the other side of the hedge; she recognized one of the voices.

"Jost," she cried feebly, "Jost, what is it? where is Dietrich?"

There was no answer; Jost did not or would not, hear. He ran faster than before, and the second fellow ran too. The last one paused a little; it was Blasi. He said hastily:

"He isn't coming yet awhile. You can go to bed;" and was making off.

"Oh do tell me what has happened," said Gertrude, white with terror. "Don't leave me so, but tell me, Blasi, why Dietrich hasn't come home with the rest of you?"

Blasi had too much respect for Dietrich's mother to run away from her when she put a direct question to him, although he would fain have escaped. He came close to the hedge, and replied,

"There has been a row at the Rehbock. Two men were killed. Some one stole the cattle dealer's money bag--"

"Is Dietrich killed? Speak out!" broke in Gertrude, trembling.

"No; he struck about him bravely, till one of the fellows got enough of it, and lay dead on the ground; and then he made off."

With this Blasi ran on.

Gertrude mounted wearily to her room as if her last day was come. She sat down upon her bed, and when the morning light filled the room, still she sat there listening in trembling anxiety, as she had listened through all the long night; in vain. Dietrich had not come home in the night; he did not come in the morning.