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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Nameless Castle - Part 4. Satan Laczi - Chapter 1
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The Nameless Castle - Part 4. Satan Laczi - Chapter 1 Post by :olecram Category :Long Stories Author :Maurus Jokai Date :May 2012 Read :2576

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The Nameless Castle - Part 4. Satan Laczi - Chapter 1


Count Vavel (thus he was addressed on his letters) had arranged an observatory in the tower of the Nameless Castle. Here was his telescope, by the aid of which he viewed the heavens by night, and by day observed the doings of his fellow-men. He noticed everything that went on about him. He peered into the neighboring farm-yards and cottages, was a spectator of the community's disputes as well as its diversions. Of late, the chief object of his telescopic observations during the day were the doings at the neighboring manor. He was the "Lion-head" and the "Council of Ten" in one person. The question was, whether the new mistress of the manor, the unmarried baroness, should "cross the Bridge of Sighs"? His telescope told him that this woman was young and very fair; and it told him also that she lived a very secluded life. She never went beyond the village, nor did she receive any visitors.

In the neighborhood of Neusiedl Lake one village was joined to another, and these were populated by pleasure-loving and sociable families of distinction. It was therefore a difficult matter for the well-born man or woman who took up a residence in the neighborhood to avoid the jovial sociability which reigned in those aristocratic circles.

Count Vavel himself had been overwhelmed with hospitable attentions the first year of his occupancy of the Nameless Castle; but his refusals to accept the numerous invitations had been so decided that they were not repeated.

He frequently saw through his telescope the same four-horse equipages which had once stopped in front of his own gates drive into the court at the manor; and he recognized in the occupants the same jovial blades, the eligible young nobles, who had honored him with their visits. He noticed, too, that none of the visitors spent a night at the manor. Very often the baroness did not leave her room when a caller came; it may have been that she had refused to receive him on the plea of illness. During the winter Count Vavel frequently saw his fair neighbor skating on the frozen cove; while a servant propelled her companion over the ice in a chair-sledge.

On these occasions the count would admire the baroness's graceful figure, her intrepid movements, and her beautiful face, which was flushed with the exercise and by the cutting wind.

But what pleased him most of all was that the baroness never once during her skating exercises cast an inquiring glance toward the windows of the Nameless Castle--not even when she came quite close to it.

On Christmas eve she, like Count Vavel, arranged a Christmas tree for the village children. The little ones hastened from the manor to the castle, and repeated wonderful tales of the gifts they had received from the baroness's own hands.

Every Sunday the count saw the lady from the manor take her way to church, on foot if the roads were good; and on her homeward way he could see her distribute alms among the beggars who were ranged along either side of the road. This the count did not approve. He, too, gave plenteously to the poor, but through the village pastor, and only to those needy ones who were too modest to beg openly. The street beggars he repulsed with great harshness--with one exception. This was a one-legged man, who had lost his limb at Marengo, and who stationed himself regularly beside the cross at the end of the village. Here he would stand, leaning on his crutches, and the count, in driving past, would always drop a coin into the maimed warrior's hat.

One day when the carriage drew near the cross, Count Vavel saw the old soldier, as usual, but without his crutches. Instead, he leaned on a walking-stick, and stood on two legs.

The count stopped the carriage, and asked: "Are not you the one-legged soldier?"

"I am, your lordship," replied the man; "but that angel, the baroness, has had a wooden leg made for me,--I could dance with it if I wished,--so I don't need to beg any more, for I can cut wood now, and thus earn my living. May God bless her who has done this for me!"

The count was dissatisfied with himself. This woman understood everything better than he did. He felt that she was his rival, and from this feeling sprang the desire to compete with her.

An opportunity very soon offered. One day the count received from the reverend Herr Mercatoris a gracefully worded appeal for charity. The new owner of Fertoeszeg had interested herself in the fate of the destitute children whose fathers had gone to the war, and, in order to render their condition more comfortable, had undertaken to found a home for them. She had already given the necessary buildings, and had furnished them. She now applied to the sympathies of the well-to-do residents of the county for assistance to educate the children. In addition to food and shelter, they required teachers. Such sums as were necessary for this purpose must be raised by a general subscription from the charitably inclined.

The count promptly responded to this request. He sent the pastor fifty louis d'or. But in the letter which accompanied the gift he stipulated that the boy whose mother was in prison should not be removed from Frau Schmidt's care to the children's asylum.

It was quite in the order of things that the baroness should acknowledge the munificent gift by a letter of thanks.

This missive was beautifully written. The orthography was singularly faultless. The expressions were gracefully worded and artless; nothing of flattery or sentimentality--merely courteous gratefulness. The letter concluded thus:

"You will pardon me, I trust, if I add that the stipulation which you append to your generous gift surprises me; for it means either that you disapprove the principle of my undertaking, or you do not wish to transfer to another the burden you have taken upon yourself. If the latter be the reason, I am perfectly willing to agree to the stipulation; if it be the former, then I should like very much to hear your objection, in order that I may justify my action."

This was a challenge that could not be ignored. The count, of course, would have to convince his fair neighbor that he was in perfect sympathy with the principle of her philanthropic project, and he wrote accordingly; but he added that he disapproved the prison-like system of children's asylums, the convict-like regulations of such institutions. _He thought the little ones would be better cared for, and much happier, were they placed in private homes, to grow up as useful men and women amid scenes and in the sphere of life to which they belonged.

The count's polemic reply was not without effect. The baroness, who had her own views on the matter, was quite as ready to take the field, with as many theoretic and empiric data and recognized authorities as had been her opponent. The count one day would despatch a letter to the manor, and Baroness Katharina would send her reply the next--each determined not to remain the other's debtor. The count's epistles were dictated to Marie; he added only the letter V to the signature.

This battle on paper was not without practical results. The baroness paid daily visits to her "Children's Home"; and on mild spring days the count very often saw her sitting on the open veranda, with her companion and one or two maid-servants, sewing at children's garments until late in the evening. The count, on his part, sent every day for his little protege, and spent several hours patiently teaching the lad, in order that he might compete favorably with the baroness's charges. The task was by no means an easy one, as the lad possessed a very dull brain. This was, it must be confessed, an excellent thing for the orphans. If the motherly care which the baroness lavished on her charges were to be given to all destitute orphans in children's asylums, then the "convict system" certainly was a perfect one; while, on the other hand, if a preceptor like Count Vavel took it upon himself to instruct a forsaken lad, then one might certainly expect a genius to evolve from the little dullard growing up in a peasant's cottage.

Ultimately, however, the victory fell to the lady. It happened as follows:

One day the count was again the recipient of a letter from his neighbor at the manor (they had not yet exchanged verbal communication).

The letter ran thus:

"HERR COUNT: I dare say you know that the father of your little protege is no other than the notorious robber, Satan Laczi, whom it is impossible to capture. The mother of the lad was arrested on suspicion. She lived in the village under her own honest family name--Satan Laczi being only a thief's appellation. As nothing could be proved against her, the woman has been set at liberty, and has returned to the village. Here she found every door closed against her--for who would care to shelter the wife of a robber? At last the poor woman came to me, and begged me to give her work. My servants are greatly excited because I have taken her into my employ; but I am convinced that the woman is innocent and honest. Were I to cast her adrift, she might become what she has been accused of being--the accomplice of thieves. I know she will conduct herself properly with me. I tell you all this because, if you approve what I have done, you will permit the lad you have taken under your protection to come to the manor, where he would be with his mother. If, however, you condemn my action, you will refuse to grant my request, and generously continue to care for the lad in your own way. The decision I leave to you."

Count Vavel was forced to capitulate. The baroness's action--taking into her household the woman who had been repulsed by all the world--was so praiseworthy, so sublime, that nothing could approach it. That same day he sent the lad with Frau Schmidt to the manor, and herewith the correspondence between himself and the baroness ceased. There was no further subject for argument.

And yet, Count Vavel could not help but think of this woman. Who was she?

He had sought to learn from his foreign correspondents something concerning the Baroness Katharina, but could gain no information save that which we have already heard from the county physician: disappointed love and shame at her rejection had driven the youthful baroness to this secluded neighborhood.

This reason, however, did not altogether satisfy Count Vavel. Women, especially young women, rarely quit the pleasures of the gay world because of one single disappointment.

And for Count Vavel mistrust was a duty; for the reader must, ere this, have suspected that the count and the mysterious man of the Rue Mouffetard were identical, and that Marie was none other than the child he had rescued from her enemies. Here in this land, where order prevailed, but where there were no police, he was guarding the treasure intrusted to his care, and he would continue to guard her until relieved of the duty.

But when would the relief come?

One year after another passed, and the hour he dreamed of seemed still further away. When he had accepted the responsible mission he had said to himself: "In a year we shall gain our object, and I shall be released."

But hope had deceived him; and as the years passed onward, he began to realize how vast, how enormous, was the task he had undertaken. It was within the possibilities that he, a young man in the flower of his youth, should be able to bury himself in an unknown corner of the world, to give up all his friends, to renounce everything that made life worth living, but that he should bury with himself in his silk-lined tomb a young girl to whom he had become everything, who yet might not even dream of becoming anything to him--that was beyond human might.

More and more he realized that his old friend's prophetic words were approaching fulfilment: "The child will grow to be a lovely woman. Already she is fond of you; she will love you then. Then what?"

"I shall look upon myself as the inhabitant of a different planet," he had replied; and he had kept his promise.

But the little maid had not promised anything; and if, perchance, she guessed the weighty secret of her destiny, whence could she have taken the strength of mind to battle against what threatened to drive even the strong man to madness?

Ludwig was thirty-one years old, the fourth year in this house of voluntary madmen. With extreme solicitude he saw the child grow to womanhood, blessed with all the magic charms of her sex. Gladly would he have kept her a child had it been in his power. He treated her as a child--gave her dolls and the toys of a child; but this could not go on forever. Deeply concerned, Ludwig observed that Marie's countenance became more and more melancholy, and that now it rarely expressed childlike naivete. A dreamy melancholy had settled upon it. And of what did she dream? Why was she so sad? Why did she start? Why did the blood rush to her cheeks when he came suddenly into her presence?

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