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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Nameless Castle - Part 3. The Mistress Of The Cats - Chapter 2
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The Nameless Castle - Part 3. The Mistress Of The Cats - Chapter 2 Post by :olecram Category :Long Stories Author :Maurus Jokai Date :May 2012 Read :2647

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The Nameless Castle - Part 3. The Mistress Of The Cats - Chapter 2

PART III. THE MISTRESS OF THE CATS
CHAPTER II

One day in the year formed an exception to all the rest. It was Marie's birthday. From her earliest childhood this one day had been entirely her own. On this day she addressed Ludwig with the familiar "thou," as she had been wont to do when he had taught her to walk. She always looked forward with great pleasure to this day, and made for it all sorts of plans whose accomplishment was extremely problematic.

And who came to congratulate her on her birthday? First of all, the solitary sparrow, whose name was David--surely because he, too, was a tireless singer! Already at early dawn, when the first faint rosy hues of morning glimmered through the jalousie, he would fly to the head of her bed. Then the cats would come with their gratulations, but not until their little mistress had leaped from the bed, run to the window, flung open the sash, and called, "Puss, puss!" Then the whole four would scamper into the room, one after the other, and wish her many happy returns of the day.

When the pugs had gone through their part of the program, the little maid proceeded to attire herself, a task she performed behind a tall folding screen. When she stepped forth again, she had on a gorgeous Chinese-silk wrapper, covered all over with gay-colored palms, and confined only at the waist with a heavy silk cord. Her hair was twisted into a single knot on the crown of her head.

Then she prepared breakfast for herself and her guests. The eight of them drank cold milk, and ate of the dainty little cakes which some one placed on her table every night while she slept. To-day Marie did not amuse herself with her guests, but turned over the leaves of her picture-book, thus passing the time until she should hear, after the bell had rung twice, the tap at her door.

"Come in!"

The man who entered was surprised.

"What? We are not yet ready for the drive?" he exclaimed.

The maid threw her book aside, ran toward him, and flung her arms with childish abandon around his neck.

"We are not going to drive to-day. Dost thou not know that this is my birthday--that I alone give orders in this house to-day? To-day everything must be done as _I say; and _I say that we will pass the time of the drive here in my room, and that thou shalt answer several silly questions which have come into my head. And forget not that we are to 'thou' each other to-day. And now, congratulate me nicely. Come, let us hear it!"

The count almost imperceptibly bent his knee and his head, but spoke not one word. There are gratulations which are expressed in this manner.

"Very good! Then I am a queen for to-day, and thou art my sole subject. Sit thou here at my feet on this taboret."

The man obeyed. Marie seated herself on the ottoman, and drew her feet underneath the wide skirt of her robe.

"Put that book away!" she commanded, when Ludwig stooped to lift from the floor the volume she had cast there. "I know every one of the four volumes by heart! Why dost not thou give me one of the books thou readest so often?"

"Because they are medical works."

"And why dost thou read such books?"

"In order that, should any one in the castle become ill, I may be able to cure him or her without a doctor."

"And must the person die who is ill and cannot be cured?"

"That is generally the end of a fatal illness."

"Does it hurt to die?"

"That I am unable to tell, as I have never tried it."

"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed the maid. "Thou canst not put me off that way! Thou knowest many things thou hast not yet tried. Thou hast read about them; thou knowest! What is death like? Is it more unpleasant than a disagreeable dream? Is the pain all over when one has died, or is there more to come afterward? If death is painful, why must we die? If it is pleasant, why must we live?"

Children ask such strange questions!

"Life is a gift from God that must be preserved as long as possible," returned Ludwig, evading the main question. "Through us the world exists--"

"What is the world?" interrupted Marie.

"The entire human race and their habitations--the earth."

"Then every person owns a plot of earth? Where is the plot which belongs to us? Answer me that!"

"By the way, that reminds me!" exclaimed Ludwig, relieved to find an opportunity to change the subject. "I have not yet told thee that I intend to buy a lovely plot of ground on the shore of the lake, which is to be made into a pretty flower-garden for thy use alone. Will not that be pleasant?"

"Thou art very kind; the garden will be lovely. That plot of ground, then, will be our home, will it not? What is one's home called?"

"It is called the fatherland."

"Then every country is not one's fatherland?"

"If our enemies live there, it is not."

"What are enemies?"

"Persons with whom we are angry."

"What is angry? I have never yet seen anything like it. Why art thou never angry?"

"Because I have no reason to be angry with thee, and I never associate with any one else."

"What do those persons do who become angry with one another?"

"They avoid each other. If they are very angry they fight; and if they are very, very angry they kill each other."

The maid was tortured with curiosity to-day. She drew a pin from her robe, and secretly thrust the point into Ludwig's hand.

"What art thou doing?" he asked, in surprise.

"I want to see what thou art like when thou art angry. Did it hurt thee?"

"Certainly it hurt me; see, the blood is flowing."

"Ah, heaven!" cried the maid, in terror, drew the young man's head toward her, and pressed a kiss on his face.

He sprang to his feet, his face pale as death, extreme horror depicted in his glance.

"There!" exclaimed the maid. "Thou dost not kill me, and yet I have made thee very angry."

"This is not anger," sighed the young man.

"What is it, then?"

"It has no name."

"Then I may not kiss thee? Thou lettest me kiss thee last year, and the year before, and every other year."

"But thou art fifteen years old to-day."

"Ah! Then what was allowed last year, and always before that, is not allowed now. Dost not thou love me any more?"

"All my thoughts are filled with thee."

"Thou knowest that I have always been allowed to make one wish on my birthday, and that it has always been granted. That is what some one accustomed me to--thou knowest very well who."

"Thy desires have always been fulfilled."

"Yes; and children understand how to desire what is impossible. But grown persons are clever enough to know how to impose on the children. Three years ago I asked thee to bring me some one with whom I could talk--some one who would be company for me. Thou broughtest me cats and dogs and a bird! Two years ago I wished I might learn how to make pictures; and I was given paper patterns to color with water-colors. One year ago to-day I wished I might learn how to make music; and a hand-organ was bought for me. Oh, yes; my wishes have always been fulfilled, but always in a way that cheated me. Children are always treated so. To-day thou sayest that I am fifteen years old, and that I am not any more to be treated as a child. Mark that! To-day, as heretofore, I ask something of thee which thou canst give me--and thou canst not cheat me, either!"

"Whatever it may be, thou shalt have it, Marie."

"Thy hand on it! Now, thou knowest that I asked thee not long ago to send to Paris for a 'Melusine costume' for me!"

"And has it not already arrived? I myself delivered the box into thy hands."

"Knowest thou what a Melusine costume is? See, this is it."

With these words she sprang from her seat, untied the cord about her waist, flung off the silken wrapper, and stood in front of the speechless young man in one of those costumes worn by Paris dames at the sea-shore when they disport themselves amid the waves of the ocean. The Melusine costume was a bathing-dress.

"To-day, Ludwig, I ask that thou wilt teach me how to swim. The lake is just out yonder below the garden."

The maid, in her pale-blue bathing-dress, looked like one of those fairy-like creatures in Shakspere's "Midsummer Night's Dream," innocent and alluring, child and siren.

Disconcerted and embarrassed, Ludwig raised his hand.

"Art thou going to strike me?" inquired the child, half crying, half laughing.

"Pray put on the wrapper again!" said Ludwig, taking the garment from the sofa and with it veiling the model for a Naiad. "What sort of a caprice is this?"

"I have had the thought in my head for a long, long time, and I beg that thou wilt grant my request. Thou canst not say that thou canst not swim; for once, when we were traveling in great haste, I know not why, we came to a river, and found that the boat was on the farther shore. Thou swammest across, and broughtest back the boat in which the four of us then crossed to the other side. Already then the desire to swim arose in me. What a delicious sensation to swim through the water--to make wings of one's arms and fly like a bird! Since we live in this castle the wish has become stronger. Night after night I dream that I am cleaving through the waves. I never see God's sky when I go out, because I have to cover my face. It is just like looking at creation through a grating! I should love dearly to sing and shout for joy; but I dare not, for I am afraid the trees, the walls, the people, might hear me and betray me. But out yonder I could float on the green waves, where I should meet no one, where no one would see me. I could look up at the shining sky, and about in chorus with the fish-hawks, surrounded by the darting fishes, that would tell no one what they had seen or heard. That would be supreme happiness for me; wilt not thou help me to secure it?"

The child's wish was so true, so earnest, and Ludwig himself had experienced the proud delights of which she had spoken. Perhaps, too, he had related to Marie the story of Clelia and her companions, who swam the Tiber to preserve the Roman maidens' reputation for virtue.

"Whatever gives pleasure to thee pleases me," he said, extending his hand to take hers.

"And thou wilt grant my wish? Oh, how kind, how dear thou art!" And in vain the young man sought to withdraw the hand she covered with kisses. "What!" she exclaimed reproachfully, "may I not kiss thy hand either?"

"How canst thou behave so, Marie? Thou art fifteen years old! A grown-up girl does not kiss a man's hand."

He passed his hand across his brow and sighed heavily; then he rose to his feet.

"Where art thou going? Knowest thou not that to-day thou dost not belong to thy horrid books nor to thy telescope, but that thou art my subject?"

"I go to execute the commands of my little queen. If she desires to learn to swim, I must have a bath-house built on the shore, and look about for a suitable spot in the little cove."

"When I have learned to swim all by myself, may not I go beyond the little cove--away out into the open lake?"

"Yes, on two conditions. One is that I may follow in my canoe--"

"But not keep very near to me?"

"Of course not. The second condition is that in daylight thou wilt not swim beyond those willows which conceal the cove. Only on moonlight evenings mayest thou venture into the open lake."

"But why may not I venture by daylight?"

"Because a telescope does not enable one to distinguish features after night. Other people may have a telescope, like myself."

"Who would have one in this village?"

"The manor has a new occupant. A lady has taken possession there."

"A lady? Is she pretty?"

"She is young."

"Didst thou see her through the telescope? What kind of hair has she got?"

"Blonde."

"Then she must be very pretty. May I take a look at her some time?"

"I am afraid thou mightest fall in love with her; for she is very beautiful, and very good."

"How dost thou know she is good?"

"Because she visits the sick and the poor, and because she goes regularly to church."

"Why do we never go to church?"

"Because we profess a different belief from that acknowledged by those persons who attend this church."

"Do they pray to a different God from ours?"

"No; they pray to the same God."

"Then why should n't we all go to the same church?"

Unable longer to control himself, Ludwig took the shrewd little child-head between his hands, and said tenderly:

"My darling! my little queen! not all the synods of the four quarters of the globe could answer thy questions--let alone this poor forgotten soldier!"

"There! thou always pretendest to be stupid when I want to borrow a little bit of thy wisdom. Thou art like the rich man who tells the beggar that he has no money. By the way, I must not forget that I always send money to the poor children on my birthday. Come, tell me which of the heaps I shall send to-day--these small coins, or these large ones? If thou thinkest I ought to send these little yellow ones, I have no objections. I think I prefer to keep the white coins, they have such a musical sound; besides, they have the image of the Virgin. If thou thinkest I ought to send some of the large red ones, too, I will do so."

The "little yellow ones" were gold sovereigns; the "white coins" were silver _Zwanziger_; and the "large red ones" were copper medals of the Austrian minister of finance, worth half a guilder.

"We will send some of the small coins and some of the large ones," decided Ludwig, smiling at the little maid's ignorance of the value of the money.

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