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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Nameless Castle - Part 3. The Mistress Of The Cats - Chapter 3
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The Nameless Castle - Part 3. The Mistress Of The Cats - Chapter 3 Post by :olecram Category :Long Stories Author :Maurus Jokai Date :May 2012 Read :2159

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

PART III. THE MISTRESS OF THE CATS
CHAPTER III

Tradition maintained that many years before, during the preceding century, the tongue of land now occupied by the Nameless Castle was part of the lake; and it may have been true, for Neusiedl Lake is a very capricious body of water. During the past two decades we ourselves have seen a greater portion of the lake suddenly recede, leaving dry land where once had been several feet of water. The owners of what had once been the shore took possession of the dry lake bottom; they used it for meadows and pastures; leased it, and the lessees built farm-houses and steam-mills on the "new ground." They cultivated wheat and maize, and for many years harvested two crops a year. Suddenly the lake took a notion to occupy its old bed again; and when the water had resumed its former level, fields and farms had vanished beneath the green flood; only here and there the top of a chimney indicated where a steam-mill had been. Magic tricks like this Neusiedl Lake has played more than once on trusting mortals.

On either side of the peninsula on which stood the Nameless Castle was a little cove. One of these the count had spoken of to Marie; the other separated the castle from the village of Fertoeszeg.

The manor, the habitation of the owner of the Fertoeszeg estate, stood on the slope of a hill at the eastern end of the village, and fronted, as did the neighboring castle, on the lake.

In the second half of the month of August, in the year 1806, one might have seen from the veranda of the manor, after the sun had gone down and the marvelous tints of the evening sky were reflected in the water, a small boat speed out from the cove on the farther side of the Nameless Castle, trailing after it a long silvery streak on the parti-colored surface of the lake. A solitary man sat in the boat.

But what could not be seen from the veranda of the manor was that a girlish form swam a little in advance of the boat.

Marie had proved an excellent scholar in the school of the hydriads. Already after the fourth lesson she could swim alone, and sped over the waves as lightly and gracefully as a swan.

She did not need to wear a hat on these evening swimming excursions; her long hair floated unbound after her on the waves. When the twilight shadows deepened, the swimmer would speed far ahead of the accompanying canoe. She had lost all fear of the water. The waves were her friends--they knew each other well. When she wished to rest, she would turn her face to the sky, fold her arms across her breast, and lie on the waves as among swelling cushions like a child in a rocking cradle. And here she was allowed the full privileges of a child. She shouted; called to the startled wild geese; teased the night-swallows, and the bats skimming along the surface of the lake in quest of water-spiders. Here she even ventured to sing, and gave voice to charming melodies, which floated over the water like the sounds of an AEolian harp.

Many hours were spent thus on the lake. The little maid never wearied of the water. The protecting element restored to her nerves the strength which the stepmotherly earth had taken from them. A promenade of a hundred steps would tire her so that she would have to stop and rest. She had become unused to walking. But here in the water she moved about like a Naiad; her whole being was transformed; she lived! Then, when her guardian would call her, she would swim back to the canoe, clamber into it, and spread her long hair over his knees to dry while they rowed back to the shore. Poor little maid! She declared she had found happiness in the water.

* * * * *

One evening, after the waning moon had risen, Ludwig's canoe, as usual, followed Marie, who was swimming a considerable distance ahead. Among the peculiarities of Neusiedl Lake are its numerous islets, the shores of which are thickly grown with rushes, and covered with broom and tall trees. Such an island lay not far from the shore in front of the Nameless Castle; it had frequently aroused Marie's curiosity.

The little maid was now permitted to swim as far out into the open world of waves as she desired, only now and again signaling her whereabouts through a clear-toned "Ho, ho!"

During this time Ludwig reclined in his boat, and while the waves gently rocked him, he gazed dreamily into the depths of the starry sky, and listened to the mysterious voices of the night--the moaning, murmuring, echoing voices floating across the surface of the water.

Suddenly a piercing scream mingled with the mysterious voices of the night. It was Marie's voice.

Frantic with terror, Ludwig seized his oars, and the canoe shot through the water in the direction of the scream.

The trail of light left behind her by the swimmer was visible on the calm surface of the lake. Suddenly it made an abrupt turn, and began to form a gigantic V. Evidently the little maid was impelled by desperate terror to reach the protecting canoe. When she came abreast of it she uttered a second cry, convulsively grasped the edge of the boat, and cast a terrified glance backward.

"Marie!" cried the count, greatly alarmed, seizing the girdle about her waist and lifting her into the canoe. "What has happened? Who is following you?"

The child trembled violently; her teeth chattered, and she gasped for breath, unable to speak; only her large eyes were still fixed with an expression of horror on the water.

Ludwig looked searchingly around, but could see nothing. And yet, after a few seconds, something rose before him.

What was it? Man or beast?

The head, the face, were head and face of a human being--a man, perhaps. The cheeks and head were covered with short reddish hair like the fur of an otter. The long, pointed ears stood upright. The mouth was closed so tightly that the lips were invisible. The nose was flat. The eyes, like those of a fish, were round and staring. There was no expression whatever in the features.

The mysterious monster had risen quite close to the boat.

Ludwig seized an oar with both hands to crush the monster's head; but the heavy blow fell on the water. The creature had vanished underneath the boat, and only the motion of the water on the other side indicated the direction it had taken. Terror and rage had benumbed Ludwig's nerves.

What was it? Who had sent this nameless monster after his carefully guarded treasure? Even the bottom of the lake concealed her enemies! He could think of nothing but intrigues and malignant persecutions. Rage boiled in his veins.

He enveloped the maid in her bath-mantle, and took up his oars.

"I will come back here to-morrow," he muttered to himself, "hunt up this creature, and shoot it--be it man or beast."

Marie murmured something which sounded like a remonstrance.

"I will shoot the creature!" repeated Ludwig, savagely.

The young girl withdrew trembling to the stern of the boat, and said nothing further; she even strove to suppress her nervous terror, like a child that has behaved naughtily.

When the boat reached the shore, Ludwig bade Marie in a stern voice to make haste and change her bathing-dress, and became very impatient when she lingered longer than usual in the bath-house. Then he took her arm and walked rapidly with her to the castle.

"Are you really going to shoot that creature?" asked Marie, still trembling.

"Yes."

"But suppose it is a human being?"

"Then I shall certainly shoot him."

"I will never, never again venture into the lake."

"I am certain of that! If you once become frightened in the water, you will always have a dread of it."

"My dear, beautiful lake!" sighed Marie, casting backward a sorrowful glance at the glittering expanse of water, at the paradise of her dreams, which the rising wind was curling into wavelets.

"Go at once to bed," said Ludwig, when he had conducted his charge to the door of her room. "Cover yourself up well, and if you feel chilly I will make you a cup of camomile tea."

All children have such a distaste for this herb tea that it was not to be wondered at if Marie declared she did not feel in the least chilly, and that she would go at once to bed.

But she did not sleep well. She dreamed all night long of the water-monster. She saw it pursuing her. The staring fish-eyes rose before her in the darkness. Then she saw Ludwig with his gun searching for the monster--saw him shoot at it, but without effect. The hideous creature leaped merrily away.

More than once she awoke from her restless slumber and called softly:

"Ludwig, are you there?"

But no one answered the question. Since her last birthday Ludwig had not occupied the lounge in her room. Marie had discovered this. She had placed a rose-leaf on the silken coverlet every evening, and found it still there in the morning. If any one had slept on the lounge, the rose-leaf would have fallen to the floor.

The following day Ludwig was more silent than usual. He did not speak once during their drive, and ate hardly anything at meals.

One could easily see how impatiently he waited for evening, when he might go down to the lake and search for the monster--a sorry object for a fury such as his! An otter, most likely, or a beaver--mayhap an abortion of the Dead Sea, which had survived the ages since the days of Sodom! All the same, it was a living creature, and must become food for fishes. Marie, however, prayed so fervently that nothing might come of Ludwig's fury that Heaven heard the prayer. The weather changed suddenly in the afternoon. A cold west wind succeeded to the warm August sunshine; clouds of dust arose; then came a heavy downpour of rain. Ludwig was obliged to forego his intention to row about on the lake in the evening. He spent the entire evening in his room, leaving Marie to complain to her cats; but they were sleepy, and paid no attention to what she said.

The little maid had no desire to go to bed; she was afraid she might dream again of horrible things. The heavy rain beat against the windows; thunder rumbled in the distance.

"I should not like to venture out of the house in such weather," said Marie to her favorite cat, who was dozing on her knee. "Ugh-h! just think of crossing the lonely court, or going through the dark woods! Ugh-h! how horrible it must be there now! And then, to pass the graveyard at the end of the village! When the lightning flashes, the crosses lift their heads from the darkness--ugh-h!"

The clock struck eleven; directly afterward there came a hesitating knock at her door.

"Come in! You may come in!" she called joyfully. She thought it was Ludwig.

The door opened slowly, only half-way, and the voice which began to speak was not Ludwig's; it was the groom.

"Beg pardon, madame!" (thus he addressed the little maid).

"Is it you, Henry? What do you want? You may come in. I am still up."

The groom entered, and closed the door behind him. He was a tall, gray-haired man, with an honest face and enormously large hands.

"What is it, Henry? Did the count send you?"

"No, madame; I only wish he were able."

"Why? What is the matter with him?"

"I don't know, indeed! I believe he is dying."

"Who? Ludwig?"

"Yes, madame; my master."

"For God's sake, tell me what you mean!"

"He is lying on his bed, quite out of his mind. His face is flushed, his eyes gleam like hot coals, and he is talking wildly. I have never seen him in such a condition."

"Oh, heaven! what shall we do?"

"I don't know, madame. When any of us gets sick the count knows what to do; but he does n't seem able to cure himself now; the contents of the medicine-chest are scattered all over the floor."

"Is there no doctor in the village?"

"Yes, madame; the county physician."

"Then he must be sent for."

"I thought of that, but I did not like to venture to do so."

"Why not?"

"Because the count has declared that he will shoot me if I attempt to bring a stranger into his room, or into madame's. He told me I must never admit within the castle gate a doctor, a preacher, or a woman; and I should not think of disobeying him."

"But now that he is so ill? and you say he may die? Merciful God! Ludwig die! It cannot--must not--happen!"

"But how will madame hinder it?"

"If you will not venture to fetch the doctor, then I will go myself."

"Oh, madame! you must not even think of doing this!"

"I think of nothing else but that he is ill unto death. I am going, and you are coming with me."

"Holy Father! The count will kill me if I do that."

"And if you don't do it you will kill the count."

"That is true, too, madame."

"Then don't you do anything. _I shall do what is necessary. I will put on my veil, and let no one see my face."

"But in this storm? Just listen, madame, how it thunders."

"I am not afraid of thunder, you stupid Henry. Light a lantern, and arm yourself with a stout cudgel, while I am putting on my pattens. If Ludwig should get angry, I shall be on hand to pacify him. If only the dear Lord will spare his life! Oh, hasten, hasten, my good Henry!"

"He will shoot me dead; I know it. But let him, in God's name! I do it at your command, madame. If madame is really determined to go herself for the doctor, then we will take the carriage."

"No, indeed! Ludwig would hear the sound of wheels, and know what we were doing. Then he would jump out of bed, run into the court, and take a cold that would certainly be his death. No; we must go on foot, as noiselessly as possible. It is not so very far to the village. Go now, and fetch the lantern."

Several minutes afterward, the gates of the Nameless Castle opened, and there came forth a veiled lady, who clung with one hand to the arm of a tall man, and carried a lantern in the other. Her companion held over her, to protect her from the pouring rain, a large red umbrella, and steadied his steps in the slippery mud with a stout walking-stick. The lady walked so rapidly that her companion with difficulty kept pace with her.

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