THE COUNT AND LITTLE GERTRUD:
A STORY OF THE SEVEN WEEKS’ WAR.
By S. R. Crockett.
Author of “The Stickit Minister,” “The Raiders “The Lilac Sun-bonnet,” etc.
The Count’s Daisy Chain.
THE Count St. Polten-Vassima was walking slowly along one of his forest paths. He was not in the least thinking where he was going. He had quite recently and unexpectedly come into both the title and the property, and he was, for the time being, staying in one of the smaller rooms of the great unfinished castle which his father had begun and his brother had continued. The new Count St. Polten was tall, dark, meditative—a soldier, yet nevertheless constitutionally inclined to a certain graceful melancholy. Even his recent dignities had not very obviously cheered him. It was now that still hour of the afternoon when Nature takes its summer siesta, and St. Polten walked along the woodland glade, sober as a funeral to look upon, but nevertheless happily and conscientiously sad within. It pleased him to observe the absence of elation in himself. As he sauntered, his mind far away, he did not observe that he had approached close to one of the cottages of his people—that of Alt Karl, his ancient , whom many years ago his father had ordained to teach him all the mysteries of the hunt and the secrets of the wood, while yet he was but a wild younger son of the great house of the Counts of St. Polten.
“Cuckoo! cuckoo!” called suddenly a bird-voice above his head. Something whirled lightly through the air and settled about his neck. The Count looked up quickly and caught just one glimpse of a girl’s laughing face vanishing at the window above him. Then he looked down and found a daisy-chain caught round his neck and hanging about his shoulders.
The Count St. Polten-Vassima stood awhile in wonder, not ill pleased, only fingering the ring of flowers, and smiling quietly to himself. Presently there came along the forest path towards him a stern-faced erect old man, who carried himself with a curious mixture of forest freedom and soldierly precision.
It was Alt Karl, the tenant of the house under which the Count stood. He looked curiously at the daisy-chain, but said nothing. The Count noticed the question in the old man’s eyes.
“No, Karl, I do not wear one of these chaplets as a rule,” he said; “but the fact is, either an angel from heaven crowned me with flowers, or else——”
And he paused and looked up.
“It was my minx of a Trudchen!” cried Alt Karl, finishing his master’s sentence; “I saw her busy at the making of it. I cannot control her since her mother died. She will do nothing but play pranks or scour the hills with a gun, and boasts that she is as good a jäger as there is in all the forest (which is a thing most true)—besides being as good a mountaineer as there is on the mountains, as if these were worthy ambitions for a young girl. But it is a good thing that she goes to-morrow to her aunt’s school in Breslau; there of a surety she will learn something more befitting a modest maiden.”
“I trust,” said the Count, pleasantly, “that you will convey to the young lady my sense of the great honour she has done me by bestowing upon me this flowery token of her favour.”
“On the contrary,” cried Alt Karl, “I shall bestow upon her a great scolding whenever I catch her, minx that she is!”
And so with a mutual salute of military exactness the Count and his old and privileged Jagdmeister parted, the nobleman to return to his vast and lonely barracks, Alt Karl to enter angrily the cottage with the roses crowding about the porch.
“Gertrud!” Alt Karl called sternly, stamping his foot a little. He had stopped to listen, standing just within the door of the quiet dusky sitting-room.
No one answered to his call. He could hear the two clocks ticking loudly, one on the wall of the salon and the other over the mantelpiece in the kitchen.
“Cuckoo!” all suddenly cried a voice behind him.
Alt Karl could not restrain a violent start. The bird seemed so near him—at his very ear, in fact. He looked up just as the Count had done, and instantly he found himself bepelted from head to foot with a shower of roses, which a tall bright-faced girl of thirteen or fourteen poured out of her apron upon his upturned face. She had been standing on tiptoe all the time upon a chair set behind the sitting-room door.
The tricksy maid clapped her hands and laughed merrily.
“A forfeit! a forfeit!” she cried. “It is the fête day of the flowers. And the new Count owes me a forfeit also!”
“I would have you understand that it is not the custom”—began her father sternly.
“A forfeit or a kiss, father!” she cried; “and if you scold me a single word I declare I shall ask the Count for a kiss too!”
And launching a random salute at her father, which alighted on the top of his nose, she danced out among the sunlit summer flowers as lightly and irresponsibly as a gossamer blown by the winds.
The Convict Gang.
It was Under-Officer Richter who spoke. And in war time this same stiff Alt Karl did not speak without reason. Never had the discipline of the Imperial White Coats showed better than now, when, defeated and decimated, the weary remnants of the great army of the double empire stood at bay just long enough to allow Feldzengmeister von Benedek to rally and reorganise his scattered forces under the guns of Olmütz and Vienna.
“Halt! The enemy!” muttered Under-Officer Alt Karl.
“The brushwood is good enough for me,” said his colonel, the Count of St. Polten-Vassima. And with the alertness of a mountaineer he betook himself to cover till the enemy should develop his strength. It was the Count’s duty to protect the hill-road which crosses the Austrian Alps to Verona, to mask the weakness of the fortresses of Moelk and Neustadt, to forward supplies from the Tyrol, and generally to retrieve an irretrievable misfortune with which he and his men had had nothing whatever to do. He had now but twenty-seven men to do all these things with. Also these twenty-seven were hungry men, for in the sullen retreat from the stricken field of Königgrätz there had been no time for more than a mouthful of ‘wurst’ out of the knapsack, and the hasty draught of water as they passed over a brook.
The Count had commanded well nigh five hundred men when the big guns first spoke across the valley on the morning of the 3rd of July. Five hundred gallant fellows had lain among the wet corn all night and arisen with hope in their hearts out of the crushed and muddy rye. Then first of all St. Polten’s command had been flung out across the Prussian skirmish line, and the deadly fire of the needle-guns had wrought him sore havoc. After that the grape-shot from the orchards of Sadowa had left many of his brave Tyrolers dead among the silent water-mills of the village. His five hundred were barely three when Chlum was taken, and when with the Field-marshal at their head the Imperial White Coats dashed at the intrenched Prussian Guards of the army of the Crown Prince. There St. Polten left two out of his three hundred, on the bare slopes which were swept by the needle-gun of the North, even as the broad Danube is swept by the slantwise western rain.
And when the pursuit quickened, and the retreat bade fair to become a rout, was it not the Count St. Polten-Vassima who pushed his war-worn hundred across and across the line of advance, and with the scanty ammunition at his command dulled with desperate valour the edge of the victory-hunger of the 3rd Prussian Army Corps? For though their guns were but few, the aim of the Tyrolers was deadly. So now, with belts tightened and gray set faces, St. Polten’s men kept, as was their duty, the lonely hill-road to Verona with but twenty-five bayonets—and Under-Officer Alt Karl.
Already this remnant of the Imperial White Coats had been forty-eight hours without food or sleep, and even the hardest old chamois-poacher of the Inn valley owned himself done up.
From the dense covert of the brushwood the Count, with Alt Karl at his elbow, watched the road beneath. Certainly a large party of some kind was marching southward. A jabber of hoarse voices rose through the still air. The Prussians must have risen betimes, thought the Count, to be here ere the dew was off the grass this morning in mid-July. Then a gun cracked. The sound came with a little jar upon the party in the brushwood. They were discovered, so each man of them thought, and automatically he counted the precious rounds of ammunition which remained to him. Then for a moment his heart went pitifully out to the lass away in the Tyrol village whose cheek, like so many others during the terrible seven weeks, would pale at the sight of the next list posted at the village Rathhaus.
But Under-Officer Alt Karl rose erect. “Dumm-Kopf! Convicts! Assassins!” he exclaimed, with the contempt of a soldier for the bands of criminals from the southern penal settlements, whom the policy of weakening and withdrawing the military guards had encouraged to escape, and who now constituted at once a difficulty to the authorities and a danger to the inhabitants of the provinces.
A loose-marching rabblement of men, carrying guns and slung wallets of various patterns, hurried southward along the road beneath the Tyrolers. Leaders there were manifestly none, for the quarrelling and noise were past telling. The nostril of Under-Officer Richter curled.
“Shall we stop these swine-cattle?” he said; “they are here for no good. Murderers, likely; thieves, certainly.”
The Count nodded.
“March!” said Alt Karl, hardly above his breath. And the command strung stealthily down the hill, taking advantage of every scrap of cover, in order to reach the narrows of the pass before the head of the convict column should come up. Rollicking songs rose joyously from the rascals beneath, lilting along the hillside with an abandon which spoke not of war but of wine. The nose of Alt Karl mounted ever higher and higher.
“Calf-heads! Stupid kerls! Worse than scoundrels!” he muttered. “Would that I had them in the barrack-yard for three months.”
At last the twenty-seven were in position. Of this Alt Karl informed the Count with an upward movement of his head, somewhat like a duck giving thanks to a kind Providence. Then up rose St. Polten.
“Stop!” he cried loudly to the men beneath. “To what penal establishment do you belong; and where is the officer in charge?”
The convicts, in Austrian prison uniform, stood still with open mouths on the road beneath; but so astonished were they that no one answered. Only from far back in their straggling ranks a rifle cracked, and a twig spat close by the Count’s ear.
“Pigs of the city slums!” muttered the Under-Officer under his breath. And he kept his eyes alert to catch the Count’s every movement.
“Shoot me that man who fired!” cried the Count; “and those two at the head of the column—no more. We cannot afford to waste ammunition on rascals!”
Crack! Crack! Crack! rang out the three shots. The man with the smoking gun fell prone upon it. The leader of the advance leaped into the air and collapsed in a heap on the ground, while a third man suddenly reeled and grasped his leg as though a wasp had stung him.
The twenty-seven White Coats rose from the brushwood.
“Ready!” cried Under-Officer Alt Karl.
The convicts from the settlements started to run, but the commanding voice of Under-Officer Karl suddenly brought them up all standing.
“Halt! pigs, and eaters of pigs’ meat! Put down the guns, which are the property of the Kaiser-like Apostolic Majesty! Ground arms! Pile arms!”
The rascals beneath, held by the threatening muzzles of the guns of the twenty-seven veteran marksmen, reluctantly piled their arms in obedience to the threatening accents of the voice which spoke as having authority.
“I was not ten years a guard of such scoundrels for nothing,” said Alt Karl as he saluted stiffly.
The Count smiled. He had hunted and campaigned too long with Alt Karl to take any offence at his abrupt speeches and dictatorial ways.
“And now,” said Alt Karl, “what does your Excellency wish done with these escaped thieves? Shall we shoot them and be done?”
“God forbid!” cried the Count, who was more tender of heart, and had seen enough killing of late, “they may have those that love them. Even as you, Alt Karl, have the little Gertrud in the cottage by the pine-wood.”
“Wolves and swine have not Trudas,” muttered Alt Karl rebelliously. “They had been safer shot, for they are the very spawn of death and full of the treachery of the devil!”
“Speak to them,” said the Count wearily, “and tell them that they are free to return to their homes. We have not force to hold them and do our duty also. The play is played. Let the supers go home.”
So Alt Karl erected himself once more to bid the ex-prisoners dismiss to their homes and settlements, and be grateful for the clemency of the commander. And right gladly the cowed rascals, who had doubtless had their fears of Karl’s solution of the matter, bent their heads to the ground and scoured away to the south.
The Bird of Hope.
So day by day the Count of St. Polten-Vassima kept the road which leads to Verona, and day nor night none came near him. For all the peasant folk were fled, the barns were exhausted or plundered, and all the fields were desolate. It was not long before there came a day when the men wanted food. So the Count bade Under-Officer Richter, who was also Alt Karl and his own Jagdmeister, to serve five rounds of ammunition to each of the five best shots and let them go out to kill wood-pigeons, where a few corn patches were not quite trampled down and the wheat began to be ruddy.
It happened as the five soldiers set out to leave the camp that the note of the cuckoo came through the trees, rough and stammering now with the lateness of the season. Then first one, then another, and at last half a dozen of the long, gray, ashen-breasted birds swooped noiselessly down, flying their short flights from tree to tree, and occasionally uttering the call which, though rough and raucous now, still carried the eternal freshness of spring along with it.
“Let us try if the ‘kuckuek’ is good eating,” cried Alt Karl. And one of the White Coats lifted his gun to fire at the bird as it flashed past. But the Count of St. Polten-Vassima sprang to his feet. His face had suddenly grown pale.
“Down with your guns!” he cried, in a voice that had more of the war rasp in it than even that of Alt Karl. “If one of you so much as fires a shot at a cuckoo, I will give him the contents of my revolver!”
The men stopped, open-mouthed with wonderment. Alt Karl was so astonished that he forgot to put down the boot which he had been tying, and so held it for a long moment suspended in the air.
But the Colonel did not choose to give any explanation of his strange manifestation of temper, and the five White Coats saluted and betook themselves wonderingly to their several quests. Alt Karl also went about his business of gathering together a small cairn of stones for the camp kettle, and the cooking of the provision with which he expected the marksmen to return. But he collected first the stones and then the fuel mechanically, for in his heart he was busily conning reasons for the strange behaviour of his officer and master the Count.
For an hour St. Polten sat on the trunk of a fallen pine, deep in thought. Then raising his head he summoned Alt Karl to him.
“Karl,” he said, “do you remember the illness that brought you to a shadow and the gates of the dead?”
“Remember!” said Alt Karl; “do I forget it for a day, or your most noble kindness?”
“And do you remember how, one morning in the spring when the leaves were greening, I came to you in the little châlet under the hill?”
“‘Ah,’ you said, ‘it is over, Count Rudolph, all over; I shall never hear the “kuckuck” again.’ Then at that moment the little Trudchen came running in. ‘Father,’ she said, with a voice like sleigh bells ringing over the snow, heard from the other side of a lake, ‘father, I hear the “kuckuck” calling.’ So we two that were men listened like little children for the voice of the bird—ay, as it had been for the sentence of the Angel of Life and Death. But we could not hear the sound. So in my arms I took you up and carried you out till I set you, all rolled in the blankets of the great bed-chair I had given you, blinking like a great white owl there in the sunshine of the morning. Then there came two cuckoos, courting the same mate to grant them her favours, and the gladsome cry of ‘kuckuck’ went round the forest.
“‘Now you know, father,’ said your little Truda, ‘that you will certainly get better. For to-day you have heard the “kuckuck,” and the spring is here.’ And that is the reason why I would not permit the shooting of a cuckoo. No, Karl, nor ever shall while I am Rudolph, Graf St. Polten-Vassima and colonel even of a broken regiment.”
Alt Karl went and stood before his master. He bent his stiff gray head uncovered and took the Count’s hand. He raised it to his lips and, as the manner of the Austrian Tyrolers is, he kissed devoutly the signet-ring upon it.
“Master,” he said, and the tears were not far from his eyes; “master, God has given me a good pupil, in other things than the learning of the Jagd. Saving your great honour and high nobleness, I that am but a poor huntsman love you as a son for the gracious words spoken to Alt Karl this day.”
A Rosebud of Twenty-One.
The war of the Seven Weeks was over, and the twenty-seven Tyrolers disbanded till the regiment should be reorganised. The sudden quarrel of South and North had been as suddenly made up. The Count went back to his corner of the great house of St. Polten. His heart was yet more heavy within him, for the pride of his nation had been trampled upon by the strong rude feet of the invaders from the north—iron-cast Prussians, as he called them, bullocks from gray Pomerania.
But when the Count had taken one look at the gaunt unfinished mass of his château he turned away with genuine sadness, dragging at his moustache—for the third army corps of the enemy had come that way on its swoop for Vienna. Horses had been stalled in the billiard-room and field-guns stored in the chapel. In the dining-hall the surgeons had done their abhorred divine work. The garden was a mere waste, and a wild pig was rooting there among the untended flowers even as he looked. The panelled front door had been used as a target for the revolver bullets of the Northern officers.
So the Count of St. Polten turned away, he hardly knew whither. He was a lonely man, with no one in the world genuinely to love him, and it was much the same to him where he went. So at least he told himself. He would see his lawyers, his land-agent, his Jagdmeister, and then set out for Paris. This was his resolve as he strode away from St. Polten with a sense of solitude and desolation settling like lead about his heart.
His feet rather than his will carried him to a sunny south-looking glade, with a cottage that stood banked against the sheltering pine-wood. It was the châlet of Alt Karl, but how unlike the other châlets of the forest people! Roses over-clambered it, creepers dominated the walls and roof, a vine cast its snaky tendrils round the chimney, the gravel walk was of hard-packed sand, and carefully swept.
It was the same bird’s voice he had heard there years ago, but with a new elan, a fresh brightness in it. The Count paused a while in the leafy shadow of the porch, for it was pleasant there out of the heat. Suddenly there came a soft rustle as of wings or summer draperies, a patter down the stairs, a rush out of a door, and a clear voice exclaiming, “Why don't you answer, old curmudgeon of a father? Do you really think I cannot see you hiding there in the porch?”
Two arms were thrown impulsively about the Count’s neck, and then turning he found himself closely face to face with the dismayed, terrified eyes of the fairest maid it had ever been his lot to see. The girl stood before him crimsoning from brow to bosom. Her hands had fallen from his shoulders to her sides, and had again been half-way lifted to her eyes as if to cover her face from the shame. She took her breath short, panting like a captured bird that fears mishandling. The Count St. Polten was equally surprised. His heart certainly jolted within him in a manner strange and unwonted. And when he awoke to himself he had his dirty campaigner’s cap in his hand, and was bowing over the girl’s hand as though she had been the Empress-Queen herself.
But suddenly, with a startled recognition of her tardy dutifulness, the girl knelt before him and set his hand to her lips, kissing the signet of the Count’s ring as her father had done.
“The Count!” she murmured. “I have been rude to the Count, my father’s gracious lord!”
Rudolph St. Polten raised the maid, and for the first time in his life he resented the homage which was his unquestioned right as grand seigneur. “And you?” he said, as if he had answered a previous question of hers as to his own identity.
“I am only little Gertrud Richter, daughter of your Jagdmeister Karl.”
“Not the little Truda whom I used to set on my knee and feed with sweetmeats and brown spiced biscuits! Not little Truda who called ‘kuckuck,’ and threw the flowers about my neck!” The Count looked at the bright young girl from head to foot as if his mind could not compass the greatness of the change.
“Even so,” she said, blushing yet again, for the sense of his greatness was fresh upon her. “I have been for five years in Breslau at school, and have just come home to take care of my father.”
A swift sense of the happiness of Alt Karl broke in upon the lonely Count. His Jagdmeister had this to come home to when his day’s work was done. For himself he had only the mildewed walls of the great barracks over yonder, defiled by the Prussians and wasted by the wild boar out of the wood.
Suddenly the maid clapped her hands together with a pretty gesture of despair.
“What have I done?” she cried. “I am dumb and stupid with your so unexpected coming. I had well-nigh forgotten to bring you in and offer you refreshment.
And she led the way into a cool room, with green blinds set at an angle to keep out the sun’s heat. In the corner of the room there was a bower of greenery ferns and flowers, and a little jetted spray of water that tinkled and laughed in the midst. Behind were bright love-birds and Japanese sparrows, in a cage which nearly filled one entire end of the little salon. A piano was set thwartwise in the angle. Music was strewn here and there. A paper-covered book lay face down on the window seat, and a mighty wolf-hound aroused himself from the fireplace to sniff the new-comer all over. Then with silent, reluctant approval the beast went back, and lay down with a sigh of regret that the intrusion needed no hostile intervention on his part. Pervading everything about the châlet there was the charming sense of feminine occupancy, that delicate refinement alien to man, which, is yet the more delightful to him on that account.
The Count sat down in wonder. Alt Karl’s house as he remembered it in his boyhood, had been a bare clean place in which a strong-handed, plain-favoured old peasant woman perpetually washed and baked and scolded. He could hear the ring of her voice still as she called a certain ragged, coltish, long-limbed lass away from the sweet sawdusty smells of the sawmill down by the St. Polten water, or sent her voice up the hill to bring the same unlicensed wanderer down out of the resinous silences of the pine-wood, where she had been all too happily playing bo-peep with the squirrels.
While he thus dreamed Truda stood by the window, her instinctive reverence for the Count of St. Polten—her father’s master, whom she had watched and worshipped many a day as he strode past to the hunting struggling with her training in the free scholastic commonwealth of the far-off Silesian city.
With quick intuition the girl caught the wonder in the face of the Count as he looked about him.
“It is my aunt,” she said timidly. She had been very kind—too kind. She wished to keep me with, her in Breslau, but I could not leave my father for a longer time. So she gave me the piano and these other things to remind me of the school in Breslau which had been my home for five years.
The Count felt a sudden and infinitely curious jealousy of the city. This maid was a flower of his own gloomy forests, a plant of the free pine-woods and the dashing highland brooks. What had she to do with pianos and schoolmistresses and scholastic cities?
“Not that I am likely to forget sweet Silesia,” she said and sighed.
The Count felt his gloom return yet more fully upon him. He looked out of the window at the squirrels cracking the juicy young cones of the larches and biting the tops of the young trees. The plain-faced, strong-armed woman he used to see in the house of Alt Karl moved across the glade towards the door with a basket in her hand. It seemed not a day since he had seen her last. Her hair might be a little grayer, that was all. “If you will not sit down,” said the Count at last, “I must stand up also and then I must go.”
Obediently Gertrud sat down by the window and leaned against the sill the heavy coil of fair hair she had wound carelessly round her head, instead of allowing it, as was the local custom, to hang down her back. A spray of scarlet creeper fell over it as the wind blew softly in, and a tangle of swaying vine leaves cast flickering shadows upon its flat, dull, golden mass.
The Count thought of his journey to Paris with a sudden dismay and a sense that he was leaving something infinitely more desirable behind him. The Count was thirty-five, and to-day he felt twenty years older. The brief seven weeks’ campaign had touched the dark hair above his temples with gray. His life also seemed all gray and wearisome, ever since the eagles of Austria had gone down at Königgrätz before the carrion vultures of the North. The Count awoke from a kind of day-dream, to find himself calculating how old this girl might be who sat so innocently with him in the house of Alt Karl.
“‘Twenty-one and a rosebud?’” he quoted, thinking aloud.
The Siege of the Châlet.
But Gertrud did not seem to hear. She was looking at something across the open grassy space, with parted lips and eager wide-open eyes.
“Look!” she cried, manifestly troubled; “look! there are two or three men hiding yonder in the shadow. They are not folk of St. Polten nor of the neighbourhood.”
The Count rose quickly from his chair and came to her side. She pointed with her finger to the edge of the pine-wood. For a minute his less accustomed eyes could discern nothing—only the shadowed spaces of the glade interspersed with the staring sunlight and the blue wash of cool shadows.
“Quick!” she cried breathlessly. “I see another and another. They have guns and curiously marked dresses. They are crouching in the dusk behind the trees. Do you not see them just there behind the oleander?”
And now the Count St. Polten saw a man with a convict’s jacket and a peaked forage cap set crosswise on his head, lying in the dark of the bushes, and behind him two or three others. Instinctively he felt for his revolver. He knew the rascals now. It was a section of the band of escaped criminals whose leaders he had killed, and from whom he had taken the guns on the way to Verona. He knew in a moment that they were seeking his life. But very calmly he picked up his own cap which he had let fall by his side.
“I must bid you adieu, Mademoiselle,” he said; “it is time that I went away.” For as he said to himself, it was no use bringing this young girl into a matter which concerned himself alone.
“I will go and find your father,” said the Count.
But the maiden never moved, watching eagerly from the open window.
She put out one hand a little behind her as if to command his silence. Then very calmly she walked to the window, set her elbows on the sill, looked listlessly and carelessly up and down the green glade, and finally broke into a gay folk-song, the notes of which rang jauntily across the silent spaces of the wood. She stretched her arms slightly and yawned, as if she were weary of the sleepiness of the heavy day and listless with the stirless air of noon.
Then quite slowly she drew herself back into the room, pulling the green sparred wooden shutters after her and bolting them within.
“Run quickly,” she said to the Count; “close the back door, bolt it, and also the little wicket window in the angle. I will attend to the front door.”
Whereupon she vanished, and the Count, smiling a little at taking his orders from little Gertrud Richter, hastened to do her bidding. He passed through the kitchen, where old Elizabeth stood speechless at the unwonted apparition of the noble Count St. Polten marching through her kitchen and banging and double-locking her back door. Then going quickly to the angle behind the staircase St. Polten almost thrust his hand into the face of a dark-browed man who was staring keenly in through the wicket. But at the sight of the Count’s revolver, then a comparatively rare weapon, and much feared in Austria and the Quadrilateral, the spy turned and fled.
“Now they are warned of our preparations, said the Count, “we shall have the storm presently.”
He went back through the kitchen into the little salon and there he found Gertrud. She had a dozen guns out of her father’s presses ranged on the table, and several boxes of cartridges stood open beside them. The ancient Elizabeth, with a somewhat bewildered look but with ready capable obedience, was charging the older muzzle-loaders which had been used for years at the chamois shooting—guns whose every trick and kick were known to the Count, who had cuddled them to his shoulder on many a perilous ridge and remote deer-pass among the mountains.
“Count,” said little Truda as soon as he entered, “if you will take the wicket in the angle, you will have under observation both the sides which are nearest the wood. I shall go to the gable window above, whence I shall be able to see any who may attack us across the grass.”
“But why trouble yourself at all?” the Count St. Polten began, a little proudly. “I can account for any dozen of these dogs of the prisons.”
“Ah! but,” said little Truda wisely, “they are too many for you. I have counted ten already, and such rascals as they would never fight fair but would shoot you in the back.”
And she almost pushed him to his position in the angle at which he had seen the face of the spy.
Then there occurred a strange still pause before anything happened. The sunshine slept white-hot in the open spaces, not a twig moved in the wood. In the grass the cicadas shrilled like the sharpening of scythes in a far-off meadow. The Count St. Polten-Vassima had all the high-born Austrian’s contempt for the rascal sweepings of the gaols, but nevertheless he recognised his peril. Doubtless the band of desperate men would do their best to revenge the death of their leaders and the loss of their weapons.
While the Count was still meditating, “crack” went little Truda’s first shot in the room above. It was answered by the cry of a man in angry pain, and then came the soft trample of many rushing feet over greensward.
Crack! crack! The swift double report rang out again from the room where the school-girl of Breslau kept her vigil.
The Count was on the point of rushing up to succour his ally when she called down imperatively, “Keep your place, Count! They will attack you next. I can keep them back on this side.”
And she spoke no more than the truth, for half a dozen muskets spoke from the woods, and then with a rush as many men sprang out of the covert of leaves and ran hard for the back porch of Alt Karl’s châlet. If once they got safely within its shelter, it might have been difficult to reach them with bullets. Four of the men carried a long straight section of tree trunk, to be used as a battering-ram to force the door.
The Count’s rifle cracked, and the nearer end of the tree dropped promptly to the ground. The man who had been carrying one side of the log gripped his hand to his thigh and roared aloud. The Count laid down one smoking weapon and lifted another. With this he took aim at the nearer of the two dark-faced men who, with muskets in their hands, were by this time much closer to the porch than those who had to bear the burden of the tree. Again the Count’s rifle was heard, and the men broke for the wood without waiting for more. The leaves closed about them and there was a great and instant stillness.
As Count St. Polten-Vassima stood at his wicket he could hear Gertrud Richter in the room above, loading her artillery and laying each gun as it was ready in order on her little dressing table. He himself hastened to do likewise. Then all suddenly a new turn was given to the situation, for Alt Karl strode out of the wood and across the wide green towards the front door. His daughter saw him first, for that was her chosen side of the house.
“Run,” she cried, “run for the door, father! I will open it.” But Alt Karl was an Under-Officer of the Apostolic Kaiser, and it was not his habit to run till he saw cause. So he faced about and looked calmly all about him. A gun went off to the right and a waft of white smoke arose. Alt Karl took the fowling piece from his shoulder and laid it to his ear ready for action. Then steadily, as if he had given himself the order to charge, he went at the double straight for the place from whence the bullet had come. But before he had gone a dozen yards a second shot was fired from the left. Alt Karl wavered, stumbled, and went over on his face with a swirl, his gun exploding as he fell.
By this time Truda had the front door open and was on the point of rushing forth to succour her father. But Count St. Polten took her by the shoulder roughly and thrust her behind him.
“Stay where you are,” he commanded; “he is too heavy for you to carry.”
And he laid down his gun on the sparred rustic seat in the porch and rushed across the lawn bareheaded. Bullets whistled about him as he ran. But in a moment he had reached the side of the fallen man. He stooped and raised Alt Karl in his arms. A crowd of men broke from the coverts on right and left, and with fierce howls of rage rushed towards the Count, who stumbled under his heavy burden.
Nevertheless he carried his Jagdmeister swiftly enough in his arms towards the open door. As he came he saw Gertrud kneeling upon one knee behind the trellis of the porch. Swiftly she fired one gun and then another till she had exhausted her battery. Then she stood up with her father’s revolver in her hand, and as he approached the door with his unconscious burden on his shoulder, he could hear the sharp crack of the report, and simultaneously the spit and whistle of the bullets as they passed on either side of him, first over one shoulder and then over the other. So accurate was the young girl’s aim that the charge of the convicts was retarded, though not wholly prevented. As Gertrud clanged the door and shot the bolts, two men flung themselves against it and one fired his gun into the keyhole. But the solid oak and the good iron bolts stood the stress.
“To your wicket!” cried Truda; “I shall go back to my window.”
She only reached her station in time to see the disappointed assailants running back to cover. But the lawn was fairly sprinkled with the wounded, some limping, some crawling, and a few more lying deadly still. All was safe for a little, so having again loaded her rifles Gertrud ran swiftly down to look after her father.
Alt Karl lay with his head supported on the Count’s arm. His daughter cut away his coat deftly. The bullet had gone clean through his shoulder, between the joint of the right arm and the spring of the neck, but very near the surface—too near to have touched any vital part. It was the shock more than the wound which had felled. Alt Karl. Presently he looked up.
“Trudchen,” he said, “have they killed your father at last?”
But his daughter smilingly answered him, “’Tis but a little blood-letting and will do thee good, Father Karl. It is not for gallows thieves to make an end of such a soldier as thou art.”
So when they were somewhat reassured, and the bleeding stanched, Alt Karl bade them to lay him along a couch by an open window and give him a gun or two, for it was natural that he also should desire to have his chance at the scoundrels.
But for a long time there came no sign of further attack. The peace of an utter quiet settled on the little châlet and its encompassing ring of sombre woodlands. In the long glades where the confederation of the flowers strove with the green pigmy armies of the grass which should be the greater, not a blade waved, not a petal nodded, so wonderful a silence brooded over all. The sun smote overbearingly down upon them, so that the humming of the bees and the shrill whistle of the cicadas almost ceased as the performers retired to take their siestas till the sun should creep a little lower in the white-hot sky.
Who Shall Save?
“I like this not,” said Alt Karl; “it goes not soundly right. I would rather see the scoundrels storming up to the doors of the house yelling for our blood, than abide this uncanny quiet.”
The Count St. Polten had relapsed into his customary lassitude, save that his eyes sometimes rested with a peculiar expression of astonishment on the returned schoolgirl from Breslau. Gertrud on the other hand seemed wholly unconscious that she had done anything remarkable. The repulse of an organised band of convicts might have formed part of the ordinary curriculum of ladies’ schools in Silesia, so calm and well accustomed, so demure and unconscious sat the little Truda at her window. But she listened eagerly enough to the talk of her elders.
“Doubtless they are waiting for the night, to steal upon us with the firebrand and the drench of petroleum,” said Alt Karl; “that is the way we burn the villages from which the sharpshooters fire upon our line of march.”
“There is part of a cavalry regiment, Hussars of the Black Eagle, lying in St. Polten,” said the Count. “If by any means we could get the news taken down there we might have succour within an hour. It is but three miles, and if there were a man of courage in the neighbourhood, he might run with the news.”
Alt Karl shook his head.
“It needs more than courage, and our men of sense are mostly lying between here and Königgrätz,” he said. “Besides, the woodchoppers and peasants will doubtless think that we of the château amuse ourselves with firing at the mark.”
Alt Karl held those low views of the intelligence of the countryfolk about St. Polten, which are the birthright of the true hillman of the Tyrol.
The Count lay back in his chair, deep in meditation. He drew out of his breast pocket a silver cigarette case. He was on the point of lighting one, when his eyes fell on Gertrud Richter.
“With your permission, Mademoiselle,” he said, bowing courteously.
The words brought a grim smile to the face of Alt Karl, a smile which ended in a little twitch of pain as his wounded shoulder nipped him.
“’Tis just my little Truda home from school in Breslau, and no Mademoiselle at all,” he explained. For often in the Austrian Tyrol, with regard to the meaning of words, things are not what they seem.
The Count looked more than a little annoyed and glanced at Truda, but she had taken to her knitting, with the muskets ready on the table beside her all the time.
“Your permission, Fraülein Gertrud?” he said politely.
Gertrud smilingly nodded and said that indeed, with her father’s habits, she was well enough accustomed to tobacco.
“To the grand pipe, not to the whiffing of straws,” said Alt Karl contemptuously, pointing to the array of noble bowls and six-foot stems on the wall.
So with the Count smoking and Gertrud making occasional reconnaissances to the upper windows, the still, breathless afternoon wore on into the cooler stillness of the evening sunshine.
All the while little Gertrud was busily thinking. It was the Count and her father whose death the convicts aimed at. For herself, not knowing the hearts of the human wild beast, she had no fear. Indeed, had she known all, the worst would not have affrighted her so long as within the chambers of her father’s revolver there slumbered an alternative.
From childhood Gertrud had dwelt in this place. For fifteen years she had tried every path, tested every hiding-place and descended into every hollow in all the jagged tangle of honeycombed limestone country about St. Polten. She remembered especially the long ravine cleft of St. Martin, which began so mysteriously just beyond the grassy slope of the glade. The little Trudchen thought deeply, and her thoughts were of what she and she alone could do.
Would it not be possible for her to run across the lawn, drop into the ravine and there lie hid while the convicts were searching for her? From thence she might be able to make her way down the bed of the stream to Martin’s Loch, where, in rainy weather, the streamlet spouted through an archway of stone down the cliff side. She had clambered there many a time in search of frost-gentian and saffron dandelion, and had indeed descended half way to St. Polten along the side of the cliff. It was true the foothold was exceedingly precarious, even in daylight, consisting of the merest projections of the limestone rock. But no one had ever attempted it in the twilight, still less at night, at which time alone she could now hope for success.
All this kept passing and re-passing in the busy little brain while Gertrud proceeded with her knitting, or went her rounds above and below stairs.
“I wonder if they have really gone,” she said to herself, “or if they are only lying in hiding. I shall try. I shall give the real ‘Mademoiselle’ a chance to distinguish herself.”
And she set the hunter’s Tyrolese hat, in which she had been accustomed to roam the woods, upon the head of the dressmaker’s wooden model, which, like a thrifty landward damsel, she used in the making of her attire. She set ‘Mademoiselle’ upon a chair with a cloak about her and pushed her to the window. There she swayed idiotically forward and leaned against the sill as if looking out. A jet of white smoke sprang promptly out of an oleander bush on the far side of the lawn. There followed the sharp report of a stolen needle-gun, and a bullet pitted itself in the thick beam above the window.
“Well done, Mademoiselle,” said Truda smiling.
And she withdrew the decoy back again into her bedchamber.
Thereupon Gertrud went down and explained her scheme for bringing relief, telling them what she had done with Mademoiselle. But the men, knowing what they knew, would not hear of her plan for a moment. If any one was to go for help it must be himself, that was St. Polten’s solution. “If we are to die, why die we must,” was that of Alt Karl.
But in her heart the girl refused to accept either. The Count certainly could not go, because he did not know the only practicable way to St. Polten, that through Martin’s Loch. Her father might be ready and willing to die—but not so she, nor, if she judged aright, the Count either. So Truda looked carefully to her revolver, which had been her father’s during the war, and slipped it loosely into the pocket of her hunter’s coat, ready to her hand. Then she put on the short mountaineer’s kilt in which she had so often gone to the hunt with her father, and setting the man’s Tyrolese hat firmly on her head she stood ready. After all it was only fifty steps or so across the grass, and fifty through the wood to the beginning of the cleft, and in the quick-coming dusk she would be there in a moment.
The dark comes swiftly enough among the wooded foothills of St. Polten. The sun was already set and the brown shades were cooling into blue with the rising of the night mist out of the hollow places.
Truda laid her plans rapidly. She arranged her half-dozen guns in a row and then discharged them one after the other, lifting them in turn to her shoulder and firing them into the belt of woodland through which she meant to run. The Count came anxiously upstairs to see if she had precipitated a general engagement. But all was still and quiet, not even the shaking of a branch betrayed the presence of the lurking foe.
The girl asked the Count to accompany her downstairs for a moment. There was some thing to be done with which he alone could help her. So they went below, and Gertrud very swiftly undid the fastenings of the back door of the châlet. Then standing on the doorstep she said, “Now I mean to go down to St. Polten by Martin’s Loch to bring up the cavalry. Shut the door swiftly after me!” And with that she was gone out of his sight before he could lay a hand on her, melting into the dusk like a shadow.
The Cleft of St. Martin.
The Count stood a moment where she had left him in speechless amazement. Then he took a hurried step or two in the direction of the wood, as though to follow and bring the madcap back, but the folly of this proceeding immediately forced itself on him. He could not hope to catch her. He knew nothing of the way by which she had gone. He would be leaving the châlet open and undefended, with no one but a wounded man within.
He bolted the door therefore and ran up to the higher window which had been Gertrud’s embrasure. Cautiously he looked out and listened. The night was very still. Not a breath of air whispered among the pine trees.
The voice of the bird came clearly and cheerfully from the direction in which the girl had vanished. The Count took it for a good omen, and the prayer of his heart became a thanksgiving.
“That was little Trudchen’s voice,” said Alt Karl, when the Count St. Polten re-entered the room where, in the darkness, the old man still kept his keen vigil, peering out of the open window across the narrow space which divided them from the woods.
Then the Count told Alt Karl all that his Gertrud had done. But the old soldier showed no sign of emotion.
“It is in the hands of God,” he said. “Did she take the revolver?”
“It is at least gone from its place,” replied the Count.
“Then she may indeed die, as may we all,” said her father; “but otherwise I am not greatly afraid for little Truda.”
Rarely had Gertrud’s heart beat so wildly as when she dashed across the lawn into the thick blackness of the woods. Her hand was on her pistol, for she knew that she risked infinitely more than her own life upon the issue of her quest. She might, for instance, for all she knew, have run straight into the arms of the cruel and lurking foe. She might chance upon the very spot at which a score of them lay hidden. Nevertheless she sped swift-foot towards the wall of leaves, and in a moment she was stooping low to take the plunge.
Suddenly out of the darkness, a little way to the right, two men emerged and looked towards the châlet. Their eyes caught the flash of her figure darting past. Without a word they closed in upon her, compelling her to enter the woods a little more to the right than she had intended. So that instead of having thick woods all the way to the cleft’s mouth, she had to cross an open space of twenty yards of flower-sprinkled grass.
When Gertrud emerged upon this little woodland cirque, where a thousand times as a child she had spread her cups and baked her mudpies in her girlish housewifery, she almost tripped over half a dozen men all lying on the grass. She swerved to the right in order to avoid them. One or two sprang after her with growls like wild beasts, and to avoid these new assailants Truda had to dodge between her first pursuers. She could hear them crashing after her in the wrong direction, So she bent her head till she was running almost double. Truda kept along the side of Martin’s cleft for a hundred yards before plunging into it, letting herself down by the branches of trees and bushes into its depths, and clinging perilously with her knees to every jutting crag and point of limestone rock.
Her pursuers came blundering after. She could hear them calling in prison slang the one to the other. But they searched in vain, for not one of them was a true mountain man or trained in the ways of the woods.
When Gertrud Richter reached the gravelly bottom of the cleft of St. Martin she found the rivulet wholly dried up by the long heats of summer. Herein a secure recess she waited full five minutes to let the heat of pursuit pass by overhead, and then in the stillness which ensued she cried twice “Cuckoo!” It was the note of hope which had cheered the heart of the Count, hearing it from the window of the beleaguered châlet.
Very swiftly the girl made her way along the cleft, which, as is the manner of such places in limestone districts, now opened out into a ravine with precipitous sides, now contracted into a passage little wider than a tunnel, and anon debouched quite unexpectedly upon the bare side of a precipitous cliff.
But not unexpectedly to Gertrud Richter. Many a time had she clambered down to the steep break-neck path, which led almost to the roofs of St. Polten. There it was at last. Through the narrow half overgrown opening of St. Martin’s Loch, Truda could see the lights of St. Polten glimmering beneath her. She even heard the band playing—that of the regiment which she was risking her life to summon. It seemed as if she could almost cry down to them, they were so near. She could see the bright lights of the café, and the officers sitting in front of it at the little round tables, smoking with crossed legs and no doubt talking infinite scandal.
But there was a hard climb yet to come—and what made it much more difficult, she had to climb down, not upwards.
But little Gertrud grasped the edge of the rocky sill of St. Martin’s Loch and let herself drop with confidence over the bare scarp of the cleft. Her feet did not quite reach the next ledge, so she let go, with a catch in her throat lest in the years since last she had been there, the foothold beneath her might have been knocked away either by the weather or by some random mountaineer.
No, it was still there. Her feet gripped the broad firm edge, and she tip-toed out upon it to feel for the rowan tree which used to grow from a cleft to the right. It was gone, and Truda’s heart for the first time fluttered wildly. It would be terrible should she be fixed all night on this bare limestone ledge, like a beetle pinned to a wall, while the fiends above were making an end of the one most dear to her on earth—that is, of her father.
But Truda did not hesitate more than a moment. She remembered that the ledge immediately beneath her was very broad, and that the rock sloped a little towards it. So without a moment’s hesitation she swung herself over, and, stretching to the full extent of her arms, she let go. She slid downward bodily, snatching at every smallest prominence which would break her fall, and in doing so bruising herself most cruelly upon the rocks. But what of that, thought Truda, when once she stood safely upon the ledge, and the worst was over. She called to mind that a goat’s track led down a tail of débris to the back of the Rathhaus of St. Polten. So in a moment she was digging her heels into the sliding banks of shale, and descending recklessly towards the lights of the town.
In five minutes more Gertrud Richter, dishevelled and bleeding from a dozen scratches on her hands and arms, was telling her tale to the Colonel of the Hussars of the Black Eagle.
“The Count of St. Polten besieged by forçats—impossible!” said he, looking at the wares of a seller of matches and automatically selecting the one with the prettiest picture.
Nevertheless, in spite of the impossibility, the bugles sounded, the saddles filled, and the hoofs clattered merrily up the road towards the château of St. Polten. The path led uphill all the way, but the men set themselves light-heartedly to their task. And first of them all, with the Colonel a little way behind her, rode the Breslau school-girl upon a cavalry saddle.
And as they went they came in sight of that which made them spur yet faster and more fiercely—the flames of a burning house mounting redly to the skies. The heart of the maid throbbed violently. Was the deed which she had done to be all in vain? Were the rescuers after all to arrive too late?
Not till the white coats of the cavalry had surmounted the last rise, could the men see the source of the flames. But they heard the rattling of small arms, the crackling of timbers, and the hoarse shouting of many men.
The tall columns of soaring fire made an awful flickering twilight among the gloomy forest glades. Presently, with anxious hearts, the Hussars of the Black Eagle topped the brae, and there before them was the great house of St. Polten, which so long had stood unfinished, flaming to the skies, and the convicts running every way with torches and blazing pine faggots, like ants in a disturbed hillock of dry fir needles.
But the châlet of Alt Karl was still dark and untouched.
A pile of faggots had indeed been laid down in the porch under Truda’s roses, and was just beginning to flame up. The rattle of musketry rang about the house in a circle of fiery flashes. For it was evident that the convicts had found more arms and ammunition in the burning château.
A solitary gun replied fitfully from the windows of the châlet.
So busy were the besiegers that the cavalry were actually among them with the sword before they were aware. And then with what wild yells of terror the wretched men fled for the shelter of the woods, the horsemen riding them down mercilessly, so that but few escaped. For the marvellous light of the burning palace shone every way, even into the densest thickets. And all that night the pursuers rode hither and thither, striking and killing along the woodland ways as far as the spring of St. Martin’s cliff.
Thus ended the leaguer of St. Polten. For several days the soldiers hunted high and low, until the whole band of the escaped convicts had in divers fashions been accounted for.
Within the châlet there had been desperate work. Late in the engagement the Count had been wounded on the brow by a chance bullet; it was a flesh wound and he made little of it for its own sake. But fierce anger at the indignity came upon him, and not for all the entreaties of Alt Karl would he for a moment resign his place at the windows. So that at last the Jagdmeister, tied to his couch, had to content himself with preparing the guns for his master to fire. This he did with an ever darker and more silent fury as the night went on, and the light of the burning château made his enemies plain in its fierce glare.
The Count as he fired winged every bullet with a silent curse.
“This for her who gave herself for our sakes,” he said below his breath.
And at each discharge an enemy dropped, out there on the green flamelit fairway of the glade.
Presently there came to their ears, through the rattle of the musketry and the shouts of the incendiaries, the unmistakable cavalry cheer of the Austrian horse, and the clatter of disciplined steeds, then last of all the heady elation of the charge. But one there was that rode straight up to the door of the châlet and dismounted swiftly, minding neither friend nor foe.
The Count St. Polten-Vassima ran to open the door.
It was only the little Truda who stood there, clear and fair in the great light which shone from his burning castle. She looked down at her short kirtle, and the girl who had ridden the cavalry charger at the head of the detachment stood blushing and ashamed before him whom she had risked life and honour to save.
“I brought them as soon as I could,” she said weakly, and then began to cry as if her heart were broken.
But the Count of St. Polten-Vassima clasped the daughter of his Jagdmeister in his arms without a word.
It was a fortnight later, and the Count had returned from Vienna. Ostensibly he had gone to have the plans prepared for the new house, which he was to build by the heights near Martin’s Loch, upon the plateau whence one can look down upon the red roofs of St. Polten.
Yet as fast as his feet would carry him he hastened to the cottage, which had resumed its perennial quiet after the terrors of the siege to which it had been exposed. As the Count came near he heard the ripple of a piano in the little salon. Little Gertrud was singing a love song, quaint and old, and the sound of her voice brought back again the lonely feeling into the heart of the Count.
Gertrud came sedately to the door and asked him to enter, and would have gone forthwith to find her father. But he took her hand and kept it, as he looked away over to the crest of the hill where his new château was to stand.
“Truda,” he said, “I have come all the way from Vienna to ask if a girl, beautiful and young, can love a glum useless fellow like me.”
Gertrud’s eyes were on the ground, and for a moment she did not answer, but her hand, shook in his.
“You must marry a great lady,” she began at last, her voice quavering.
“A Count St. Polten-Vassima can wed where he chooses. The Emperor himself has said it.”
“But,” faltered Truda, compelling her rebellious heart to be still, “there are ladies, beautiful and clever, in Vienna, in Paris, in all the cities where you will go.”
The Count laughed a little, and pointed up to the trees which nodded over the defile, at the bottom of which lay the perilous pass through which she had passed so lately.
“Beautiful ladies—clever ladies—without doubt many, little one. But which of these beautiful ladies would have risked Martin’s Loch at blackest night for me? And which would have thrown herself down, bruising her fair hands on the white cliffs of St. Polten, all to save my worthless life?”
“But it was for my father,” whispered Truda, glancing at him just once, with a spark of the ancient mischief quick in her eye.
Public domainPublic domainfalse