Der Blonde Eckbert (Fair Eckbert)
In a region of the Hartz Mountains there lived a knight whom people generally called simply Fair Eckbert. He was about forty years old, scarcely of medium height, and short, very fair hair fell thick and straight over his pale sunken face. He lived very quietly unto himself, and was never implicated in the feuds of his neighbors; people saw him but rarely outside the encircling wall of his little castle. His wife loved solitude quite as much as he, and both seemed to love each other from the heart; only they were wont to complain because Heaven seemed unwilling to bless their marriage with children.
Very seldom was Eckbert visited by guests, and even when he was, almost no change on their account was made in the ordinary routine of his life. Frugality dwelt there, and Economy herself seemed to regulate everything. Eckbert was then cheerful and gay only when he was alone one noticed in him a certain reserve, a quiet distant melancholy.
Nobody came so often to the castle as did Philip Walther, a man to whom Eckbert had become greatly attached, because he found in him very much his own way of thinking. His home was really in Franconia, but he often spent more than half a year at a time in the vicinity of Eckbert’s castle, where he busied himself gathering herbs and stones and arranging them in order. He had a small income, and was therefore dependent upon no one. Eckbert often accompanied him on his lonely rambles, and thus a closer friendship developed between the two men with each succeeding year.
There are hours in which it worries a man to keep from a friend a secret, which hitherto he has often taken great pains to conceal. The soul then feels an irresistible impulse to impart itself completely, and reveal its innermost self to the friend, in order to make him so much the more a friend. At these moments delicate souls disclose themselves to each other, and it doubtless sometimes happens that the one shrinks back in fright from its acquaintance with the other.
One foggy evening in early autumn Eckbert was sitting with his friend and his wife, Bertha, around the hearthfire. The flames threw a bright glow out into the room and played on the ceiling above. The night looked in darkly through the windows, and the trees outside were shivering in the damp cold. Walther was lamenting that he had so far to go to get back home, and Eckbert proposed that he remain there and spend half the night in familiar talk, and then sleep until morning in one of the rooms of the castle. Walther accepted the proposal, whereupon wine and supper were brought in, the fire was replenished with wood, and the conversation of the two friends became more cheery and confidential.
After the dishes had been cleared off, and the servants had gone out, Eckbert took Walther’s hand and said: “Friend, you ought once to let my wife tell you the story of her youth, which is indeed strange enough.”
“Gladly,” replied Walther, and they all sat down again around the hearth. It was now exactly midnight, and the moon shone intermittently through the passing clouds.
“You must forgive me,” began Bertha, “but my husband says your thoughts are so noble that it is not right to conceal anything from you. Only you must not regard my story as a fairy-tale, no matter how strange it may sound.
“I was born in a village, my father was a poor shepherd. The household economy of my parents was on a humble plane – often they did not know where they were going to get their bread. But what grieved me far more than that was the fact that my father and mother often quarreled over their poverty, and cast bitter reproaches at each other. Furthermore I was constantly hearing about myself, that I was a simple, stupid child, who could not perform even the most trifling task. And I was indeed extremely awkward and clumsy; I let everything drop from my hands, I learned neither to sew nor to spin, I could do nothing to help about the house. The misery of my parents, however, I understood extremely well. I often used to sit in the corner and fill my head with notions – how I would help them if I should suddenly become rich, how I would shower them with gold and silver and take delight in their astonishment. Then I would see spirits come floating up, who would reveal subterranean treasures to me or give me pebbles which afterward turned into gems. In short, the most wonderful fantasies would occupy my mind, and when I had to get up to help or carry something, I would show myself far more awkward than ever, for the reason that my head would be giddy with all these strange notions.
“My father was always very cross with me, because I was such an absolutely useless burden on the household; so he often treated me with great cruelty, and I seldom heard him say a kind word to me. Thus it went along until I was about eight years old, when serious steps were taken to get me to do and to learn something. My father believed that it was sheer obstinacy and indolence on my part, so that I might spend my days in idleness. Enough – he threatened me unspeakably, and when this turned out to be of no avail, he chastised me most barbarously, adding that this punishment was to be repeated every day because I was an absolutely useless creature.
“All night long I cried bitterly – I felt so entirely forsaken, and I pitied myself so that I wanted to die.’ I dreaded the break of day, and did not know what to do. I longed for any possible kind of ability, and could not understand at all why I was more stupid than the other children of my acquaintance. I was on the verge of despair.
“When the day dawned, I got up, and, scarcely realizing what I was doing, opened the door of our little cabin. I found myself in the open field, soon afterward in a forest, into which the daylight had hardly yet shone. I ran on without looking back; I did not get tired, for I thought all the time that my father would surely overtake me and treat me even more cruelly on account of my running away.
“When I emerged from the forest again the sun was already fairly high, and I saw, lying ahead of me, something dark, over which a thick mist was resting. One moment I was obliged to scramble over hills, the next to follow a winding path between rocks. I now guessed that I must be in the neighboring mountains, and I began to feel afraid of the solitude. For, living in the plain, I had never seen any mountains, and the mere word mountains, whenever I heard them talked about, had an exceedingly terrible sound to my childish ear. I hadn’t the heart to turn back – it was indeed precisely my fear which drove me onwards. I often looked around me in terror when the wind rustled through the leaves above me, or when a distant sound of chopping rang out through the quiet morning. Finally, when I began to meet colliers and miners and heard a strange pronunciation, I nearly fainted with fright.
“I passed through several villages and begged, for I now felt hungry and thirsty. I helped myself along very well with the answers I gave to questions asked me. I had wandered along in this way for about four days, when I came to a small foot-path which led me farther from the highway. The rocks around me now assumed a different, far stranger shape. They were cliffs, and were piled up on one another in such a way that they looked as if the first gust of wind would hurl them all together into a heap. I did not know whether to go on or not. I had always slept over night either in out-of-the-way shepherds’ huts, or else in the open woods, for it was just then the most beautiful season of the year. Here I came across no human habitations whatever, nor could I expect to meet with any in this wilderness. The rocks became more and more terrible – I often had to pass close by dizzy precipices, and finally even the path under my feet came to an end. I was absolutely wretched; I wept and screamed, and my voice echoed horribly in the rocky glens. And now night set in; I sought out a mossy spot to lie down on, but I could not sleep. All night long I heard the most peculiar noises; first I thought it was wild beasts, then the wind moaning through the rocks, then again strange birds. I prayed, and not until toward morning did I fall asleep.
“I woke up when the daylight shone in my face. In front of me there was a rock. I climbed up on it, hoping to find a way out of the wilderness, and perhaps to see some houses or people. But when I reached the top, everything, as far as my eye could see, was like night about me – all overcast with a gloomy mist. The day was dark and dismal, and not a tree, not a meadow, not even a thicket could my eye discern, with the exception of a few bushes which, in solitary sadness, had shot up through the crevices in the rocks. It is impossible to describe the longing I felt merely to see a human being, even had it been the most strange looking person before whom I should inevitably have taken fright. At the same time I was ravenously hungry. I sat down and resolved to die. But after a while the desire to live came off victorious; I got up quickly and walked on all day long, occasionally crying out. At last I was scarcely conscious of what I was doing; I was tired and exhausted, had hardly any desire to live, and yet was afraid to die.
“Toward evening the region around me began to assume a somewhat more friendly aspect. My thoughts and wishes took new life, and the desire to live awakened in all my veins. I now thought I heard the swishing of a mill in the distance; I redoubled my steps, and how relieved, how joyous I felt when at last I actually reached the end of the dreary rocks! Woods and meadows and, far ahead, pleasant mountains lay before me again. I felt as if I had stepped out of hell into paradise; the solitude and my helplessness did not seem to me at all terrible now.
“Instead of the hoped-for mill, I came upon a water-fall, which, to be sure, considerably diminished my joy. I dished up some water from the river with my hand and drank. Suddenly I thought I heard a low cough a short distance away. Never have I experienced so pleasant a surprise as at that moment; I went nearer and saw, on the edge of the forest, an old woman, apparently resting. She was dressed almost entirely in black; a black hood covered her head and a large part of her face. In her hand she held a walking stick.
“I approached her and asked for help; she had me sit down beside her and gave me bread and some wine. While I was eating she sang a hymn in a shrill voice, and when she had finished she said that I might follow her.
“I was delighted with this proposal, strange as the voice and the personality of the old woman seemed to me. She walked rather fast with her cane, and at every step she distorted her face, which at first made me laugh. The wild rocks steadily receded behind us – we crossed a pleasant meadow, and then passed through a fairly long forest. When we emerged from this, the sun was just setting, and I shall never forget the view and the feelings of that evening. Everything was fused in the most delicate red and gold; the tree-tops stood forth in the red glow of evening, the charming light was spread out over the fields, the forest and the leaves of the trees were motionless, the clear sky looked like an open paradise, and the evening bells of the villages rang out with a strange mournfulness across the lea. My young soul now got its first presentment of the world and its events. I forgot myself and my guide; my spirit and my eyes were wandering among golden clouds.
“We now climbed a hill, which was planted with birch trees, and from its summit looked down into a little valley, likewise full of birches. In the midst of the trees stood a little hut. A lively barking came to our ears, and presently a spry little dog was dancing around the old woman and wagging his tall. Presently he came to me, examined me from all sides, and then returned with friendly actions to the old woman.
“When we were descending the hill I heard some wonderful singing, which seemed to come from the hut. It sounded like a bird, and ran:
O solitude Of lonely wood, Where none intrude, Thou bringest good For every mood, O solitude!
“These few words were repeated over and over; if I were to attempt to describe the effect, it was somewhat like the blended notes of a bugle and a shawm.
“My curiosity was strained to the utmost. Without waiting for the old woman’s invitation, I walked into the hut with her. Dusk had already set in. Everything was in proper order: a few goblets stood in a cupboard, some strange-looking vessels lay on a table, and a bird was hanging in a small, shiny cage by the window. And he, indeed, it was that I had heard singing. The old woman gasped and coughed, seemingly as if she would never get over it. Now she stroked the little dog, now talked to the bird, which answered her only with its usual words. Furthermore, she acted in no way as if I were present. While I was thus watching her, a series of shudders passed through my body; for her face was constantly twitching and her head shaking, as if with age, and in such a way that it was impossible for one to tell how she really looked.
“When she finally ceased coughing she lighted a candid, set a very small table, and laid the supper on it. Then she looked around at me and told me to take one of the woven cane chairs. I sat down directly opposite her, and the candle stood between us. She folded her bony hands and prayed aloud, all the time twitching her face in such a way that it almost made me laugh. I was very careful, however, not to do anything to make her angry.
“After supper she prayed again, and then showed me to a bed in a tiny little side-room – she herself slept in the main room. I did not stay awake long, for I was half dazed. I woke up several times during the night, however, and heard the old woman coughing and talking to the dog, and occasionally I heard the bird, which seemed to be dreaming and sang only a few isolated words of its song. These stray notes, united with the rustling of the birches directly in front of my window, and also with the song of the far-off nightingale, made such a strange combination that I felt all the time, not as if I were awake, but as if I were lapsing into another, still stranger, dream.
“In the morning the old woman woke me up and soon afterward gave me some work to do; I had, namely, to spin, and I soon learned how to do it; in addition I had to take care of the dog and the bird. I was not long in getting acquainted with the housekeeping, and came to know all the objects around. I now began to feel that everything was as it should be; I no longer thought that there was anything strange about the old woman, or romantic about the location of her home, or that the bird was in any way extraordinary. To be sure, I was all the time struck by his beauty; for his feathers displayed every possible color, varying from a most beautiful light blue to a glowing red, and when he sang he puffed himself out proudly, so that his feathers shone even more gorgeously.
“The old woman often went out and did not return until evening. Then I would go with the dog to meet her and she would call me child and daughter. Finally I came to like her heartily; for our minds, especially in childhood, quickly accustom themselves to everything. In the evening hours she taught me to read; I soon learned the art, and afterward it was a source of endless pleasure to me in my solitude? for she had a few old, handwritten books which contained wonderful stories.
“The memory of the life I led at that time still gives me a strange feeling even now. I was never visited by any human being, and felt at home only in that little family circle; for the dog and the bird made the same impression on me which ordinarily only old and intimate friends create. Often as I used it at that time, I have never been able to recall the dog’s strange name.
“In this way I had lived with the old woman for four years, and I must have been at any rate about twelve years old when she finally began to grow more confidential and revealed a secret to me. It was this: every day the bird laid one egg, and in this egg there was always a pearl or a gem. I had already noticed that she often did something in the cage secretly, but had never particularly concerned myself about it. She now charged me with the task of taking out these eggs during her absence, and of carefully preserving them in the vessels. She would leave food for me and stay away quite a long time – weeks and months. My little spinning-wheel hummed, the dog barked, the wonderful bird sang, and meanwhile everything was so quiet in the region round about that I cannot recall a single high wind or a thunder-storm during the entire time. Not a human being strayed thither, not a wild animal came near our habitation. I was happy, and sang and worked away! from one day to the next. Man would perhaps be right happy if he could thus spend his entire life, unseen by others.
“From the little reading that I did I formed quite wonderful impressions of the world and of mankind. They were all drawn from myself and the company I lived in; thus, if whimsical people were spoken of I could not imagine them other than the little dog, beautiful women always looked like the bird, and all old women were as my wonderful old friend. I had also read a little about love, and in my imagination I figured in strange tales. I formed a mental picture of the most beautiful knight in the world and adorned him with all sorts of excellences, without really knowing, after all my trouble, what he looked like. But I could feel genuine pity for myself if he did not return my love, and then I would make long, emotional speeches to him, sometimes aloud, in order to win him. You smile – we are all now past this period of youth.
“I now liked it rather better when I was alone, for I was then myself mistress of the house. The dog was very fond of me and did everything I wanted him to do, the bird answered all my questions with his song, my wheel was always spinning merrily, and so in the bottom of my heart I never felt any desire for a change. When the old woman returned from her wanderings she would praise my diligence, and say that her household was conducted in a much more orderly manner since I belonged to it. She was delighted with my development and my healthy look. In short, she treated me in every way as if I were a daughter.
“‘ You are a good child,’ she once said to me in a squeaky voice. ‘ If you continue thus, it will always go well with you. It never pays to swerve from the right course – the penalty is sure to follow, though it may be a long time coming. ‘ While she was saying this I did not give a great deal of heed to it, for I was very lively in all my movements. But in the night it occurred to me again, and I could not understand what she had meant by it. I thought her words over carefully – I had read about riches, and it finally dawned on me that her pearls and gems might perhaps be something valuable. This idea presently became still clearer to me – but what could she have meant by the right course? I was still unable to understand fully the meaning of her words.
“I was now fourteen years old. It is indeed a misfortune that human beings acquire reason, only to lose, in so doing, the innocence of their souls. In other words I now began to realize the fact that it depended only upon me to take the bird and the gems in the old woman’s absence, and go out into the world of which I had read. At the same time it was perhaps possible that I might meet my wonderfully beautiful knight, who still held a place in my imagination.
“At first this thought went no further than any other, but when I would sit there spinning so constantly, it always came back k against my will and I became so deeply absorbed in it that I already saw myself dressed up and surrounded by knights and princes. And whenever I would thus lose myself, I easily grew very sad when I glanced up and found myself in my little, narrow home. When I was about my business, the old woman paid no further attention to me.
“One day my hostess went away again and told me that she would be gone longer this time than usual – I should pay strict attention to everything, and not let the time- drag on my hands. I took leave of her with a certain uneasiness, for I somehow felt that I should never see her again. I looked after her for a long time, and did not myself know why I was so uneasy; it seemed almost as if my intention were already standing before me, without my being distinctly conscious of it.
“I had never taken such diligent care of the dog and the bird before – they lay closer to my heart than ever now. The old woman had been away several days when I arose with the firm purpose of abandoning the hut with the bird and going out into the so-called world. My mind was narrow and limited; I wanted again to remain there, and yet the thought was repugnant to me. A strange conflict took place in my soul – it was as if two contentious spirits were struggling within me. One moment the quiet solitude would seem so beautiful to me, and then again I would be charmed by the vision of a new world with its manifold wonders.
“I did not know what to do with myself. The dog was continually dancing around me with friendly advances, the sunlight was spread out cheerfully over the fields, and the green birch-trees shone brightly. I had a feeling as if I had something to do requiring haste. Accordingly, I caught the little dog, tied him fast in the room, and took the cage, with the bird in it, under my arm. The dog cringed and whined over this unusual treatment; he looked at me with imploring eyes but I was afraid to take him with me. I also took one of the vessels, which was filled with gems, and concealed it about me. The others I left there. The bird twisted its head around in a singular manner when I walked out of the door with him; the dog strained hard to follow me, but was obliged to remain behind.
“I avoided the road leading toward the wild rocks, and walked in the opposite direction. The dog continued to bark and whine, and I was deeply touched by it. Several times the bird started to sing, but, as he was being carried, it was necessarily rather difficult for him. As I walked along the barking grew fainter and fainter, and, finally, ceased altogether. I cried and was on the point of turning back, but the longing to see something new drove me on.
“I had already traversed mountains and several forests when evening came, and I was obliged to pass the night in a village. I was very timid when I entered the public-house; they showed me to a room and a bed, and I slept fairly well, except that I dreamt of the old woman, who was threatening me.
“My journey was rather monotonous; but the further I went the more the picture of the old woman and the little dog worried me. I thought how he would probably starve to death without my help, and in the forest I often thought I would suddenly meet the old woman. Thus, crying and sighing, I wandered along, and as often as I rested and put the cage on the ground, the bird sang its wonderful song, and reminded me vividly of the beautiful home I had deserted. As human nature is prone to forget, I now thought that the journey I had made as a child was not as dismal as the one I was now making, and I wished that I were back in the same situation.
“I had sold a few gems, and now, after wandering many days, I arrived in a village. Even as I was entering it, a strange feeling came over me – I was frightened and did not know why. But I soon discovered why – it was the very same village in which I was born. How astonished I was! How the tears of joy ran down my cheeks as a thousand strange memories came back to me! There were a great many changes; new houses had been built, others, which had then only recently been erected, were now in a state of dilapidation. I came across places where there had been a fire. Everything was a great deal smaller and more crowded than I had expected. I took infinite delight in the thought of seeing my parents again after so many years. I found the little house and the well-known threshold – the handle on the door was just as it used to be. I felt as if I had only yesterday left it ajar. My heart throbbed vehemently. I quickly opened the door – but faces entirely strange to me stared at me from around the room. I inquired after the shepherd, Martin, and was told that both he and his wife had died three years before. I hurried out and, crying aloud, left the village.
“I had looked forward with such pleasure to surprising them with my riches, and as a result of a remarkable accident the dream of my childhood had really come true. And now it was all in vain – they could no longer rejoice with me – the fondest hope of my life was lost to me forever.
“I rented a small house with a garden in a pleasant city, and engaged a waiting-maid. The world did not appear to be such a wonderful place as I had expected, but the old woman and my former home dropped more and more out of my memory, so that, upon the whole, I lived quite contentedly.
“The bird had not sung for a long time, so that I was not a little frightened one night when he suddenly began again The song he sang, however, was different was:
O solitude Of lonely wood, A vanished good In dreams pursued, In absence rued, O solitude!
“I could not sleep through the night; everything came back to my mind, and I felt more than ever that I had done wrong. When I got up the sight of the bird was positively repugnant to me; he was constantly staring at me, and his presence worried me. He never ceased singing now, and sang more loudly and shrilly than he used to. The more I looked at him the more uneasiness I felt. Finally, I opened the cage, stuck my hand in, seized him by the neck and squeezed my fingers together forcibly. He looked at me imploringly, and I relaxed my grip – but he was already dead. I buried him in the garden.
“And now I was often seized with fear of my waiting maid. My own past came back to me, and I thought that she too might rob me some day, or perhaps even murder me. For a long time I had known a young knight whom I liked very much – I gave him my hand, and with that, Mr. Walther, my story ends.”
“You should have seen her then,” broke in Eckbert quickly.” Her youth, her innocence, her beauty – and what an incomprehensible charm her solitary breeding had given her! To me she seemed like a wonder, and I loved her inexpressibly. I had no property, but with the help of her love I attained my present condition of comfortable prosperity. We moved to this place, and our union thus far has never brought us a single moment of remorse.”
“But while I have been chattering,” began Bertha again, “the night has grown late. Let us go to bed.”
She rose to go to her room. Walther kissed her hand and wished her a good-night, adding: “Noble woman, I thank you. I can readily imagine you with the strange bird, and how you fed the little Strohmi.”
Without answering she left the room. Walther also lay down to sleep, but Eckbert continued to walk up and down the room.
“Aren’t human beings fools? “he finally asked himself.” I myself induced my wife to tell her story, and now I regret this confidence! Will he not perhaps misuse it, Will he not impart it to others? Will he not perhaps – for it is human nature – come to feel a miserable longing for our gems and devise plans to get them and dissemble his nature ? ”
It occurred to him that Walther had not taken leave of him as cordially as would perhaps have been natural after so confidential a talk. When the soul is once led to suspect, it finds confirmations of its suspicions in every little thing. Then again Eckbert reproached himself for his ignoble distrust of his loyal friend, but he was unable to get the notion entirely out of his mind. All night long he tossed about with these thoughts and slept but little.
Bertha was sick and could not appear for breakfast. Walther seemed little concerned about it, and furthermore he left the knight in a rather indifferent manner. Eckbert could not understand his conduct. He went in to see his wife – she lay in a severe fever and said That her story the night before must have excited her in this manner.
After that evening Walther visited his friend’s castle but rarely, and even when he did come he went away again after a few trivial words. Eckbert was exceedingly troubled by this behavior; to be sure, he tried not to let either Bertha or Walther notice it, but both of them must surely have been aware of his inward uneasiness.
Bertha’s sickness grew worse and worse. The doctor shook his head – the color in her cheeks had disappeared, and her eyes became more and more brilliant.
One morning she summoned her husband to her bedside and told the maids to withdraw.
“Dear husband,” she began, “I must disclose to you something which has almost deprived me of my reason and has ruined my health, however trivial it may seem to be. Often as I have told my story to you, you will remember that I have never been able, despite all the efforts I have made, to recall the name of the little dog with which I lived so long. That evening when I told the story to Walther he suddenly said to me when we separated: ‘ I can readily imagine how you fed the little Strohmi.’ Was that an accident? Did he guess the name, or did he mention it designedly! And what, then, is this man’s connection with my lot? The idea has occurred to me now and then that I merely imagine this accident – but it is certain, only too certain. It sent a feeling of horror through me to have a strange person like that assist my memory. What do you say, Eckbert? ”
Eckbert looked at his suffering wife with deep tenderness. He kept silent, but was meditating. Then he said a few comforting words to her and left the room. In an isolated room he walked back and forth with indescribable restlessness – Walther for many years had been his sole male comrade, and yet this man was now the only person in the world whose-existence oppressed and harassed him. It seemed to him that his heart would be light and happy if only this one person might be put out of the way. He took down his cross-bow with a view to distracting his thoughts by going hunting.
It was a raw and stormy day in the winter; deep snow lay on the mountains and bent down the branches of the trees. He wandered about, with the sweat oozing from his forehead. He came across no game, and that increased his ill-humor. Suddenly he saw something move in the distance – it was Walther gathering moss from the trees. Without knowing what he was doing he took aim – Walther looked around and motioned to him with a threatening gesture. But as he did so the arrow sped, and Walther fell headlong.
Eckbert felt relieved and calm, and yet a feeling of horror drove him back to his castle. He had a long distance to go, for he had wandered far into the forest. When he arrived home, Bertha had already died – before her death she had spoken a great deal about Walther and the old woman.
For a long time Eckbert lived in greatest seclusion. He had always been somewhat melancholy because the strange story of his wife rather worried him; he had always lived in fear of an unfortunate event that might take place, but now he was completely at variance with himself. The murder of his friend stood constantly before his eyes – he spent his life reproaching himself.
In order to divert his thoughts, he occasionally betook himself to the nearest large city, where he attended parties and banquets. He wished to have a friend to fill the vacancy in his soul, and then again, when he thought of Walther, the very word friend made him shudder. He was convinced that he would necessarily be unhappy with all his friends. He had lived so long in beautiful harmony with Bertha, and Walther’s friendship had made him happy for so many years, and now both of them had been so suddenly taken from him that his life seemed at times more like a strange fairy-tale than an actual mortal existence.
A knight, Hugo von Wolfsberg, became attached to the quiet, melancholy Eckbert, and seemed to cherish a genuine fondness for him. Eckbert was strangely surprised; he met the knight’s friendly advances more quickly than the other expected. They were now frequently together, the stranger did Eckbert all sorts of favors, scarcely ever did either of them ride out without the other, they met each other at all the parties – in short, they seemed to be inseparable.
Eckbert was, nevertheless, happy only for short moments at a time, for he felt quite sure that Hugo love} him only by mistake – he did not know him, nor his history, and he felt the same impulse again to unfold his soul to him in order to ascertain for sure how staunch a friend Hugo was. Then again doubts and the fear of being detested restrained him. There were many hours in which he felt so convinced of his own unworthiness as to believe that no person, who knew him at all intimately, could hold him worthy of esteem. But he could not resist the impulse; in the course of a long walk he revealed his entire history to his friend, and asked him if he could possibly love a murderer. Hugo was touched and tried to comfort him. Eckbert followed him back to the city with a lighter heart.
However, it seemed to be his damnation that his suspicions should awaken just at the time when he grew confidential; for they had no more than entered the hall when the glow of the many lights revealed an expression in his friend’s features which he did not like. He thought he detected a malicious smile, and it seemed to him that he, Hugo, said very little to him, that he talked a great deal with the other people present, and seemed to pay absolutely no attention to him. There was an old knight in the company who had always shown himself as Eckbert’s rival, and had often inquired in a peculiar way about his riches and his wife. Hugo now approached this man, and they talked together a long time secretly, while every now and then they glanced toward Eckbert. He, Eckbert, saw in this a confirmation of his suspicions; he believed that he had been betrayed, and a terrible rage overcame him. As he continued to stare in that direction, he suddenly saw Walther’s head, all his features, and his entire figure, so familiar to him. Still looking, he became convinced that it was nobody but Walther himself who was talking with the old man. His terror was indescribable; completely beside himself, he rushed out, left the city that night, and, after losing his way many times, returned to his castle.
Like a restless spirit he hurried from room to room. No thought could he hold fast; the pictures in his mind grew more and more terrible, and he did not sleep a wink. The idea often occurred to him that he was crazy and that all these notions were merely the product of his own imagination. Then again he remembered Walther’s features, and it was all more puzzling to him than ever. He resolved to go on a journey in order to compose his thoughts; he had long since given up the idea of a friend and the wish for a companion.
Without any definite destination in view, he set out, nor did he pay much attention to the country that lay before him. After he had trotted along several days on his horse, he suddenly lost his way in a maze of rocks, from which he was unable to discover any egress. Finally he met an old peasant who showed him a way out, leading past a waterfall. He started to give him a few coins by way of thanks, but the peasant refused them.
“What can it mean? “he said to himself.” I could easily imagine that that man was no other than Walther.”
He looked back once more – it was indeed no one else but Walther!
Eckbert spurred on his horse as fast as it could run – through meadows and forests, until, completely exhausted, it collapsed beneath him. Unconcerned, he continued his journey on foot.
Dreamily he ascended a hill. There he seemed to hear a dog barking cheerily close by – birch trees rustled about him – he heard the notes of a wonderful song:
O solitude Of lonely wood, Thou chiefest good, Where thou cost brood Is joy renewed, O solitude!
Now it was all up with Eckbert’s consciousness and his senses; he could not solve the mystery whether he was now dreaming or had formerly dreamt of a woman Bertha. The most marvelous was confused with the most ordinary – the world around him was bewitched – no thought, no memory was under his control.
An old crook-backed woman with a cane came creeping up the hill, coughing.
“Are you bringing my bird, my pearls, my dog! “she cried out to him. “Look – wrong punishes itself. I and no other was your friend Walther, your Hugo.”
“God in Heaven! “said Eckbert softly to himself. “In what terrible solitude I have spent my life.”
“And Bertha was your sister.”
Eckbert fell to the ground.
“Why did she desert me so deceitfully! Otherwise everything would have ended beautifully – her probation time was already over. She was the daughter of a knight, who had a shepherd bring her up – the daughter of your father.”
“Why have I always had a presentiment of these facts? “cried Eckbert.
“Because in your early youth you heard your father tell of them. On his wife’s account he could not bring up this daughter himself, for she was the child of another woman.”
Eckbert was delirious as he breathed his last; dazed and confused he heard the old woman talking, the dog barking, and the bird repeating its song.
Translation by Paul B. Thomas