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   Chapter 14 No.14

The Man-Wolf and Other Tales By Erckmann-Chatrian Characters: 12843

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


My worthy uncle, Bernard Hertzog, the historian and antiquary, surmounted with his grand three-cornered hat and wig, and with a long iron-shod mountain-pole firmly grasped in his hand, was coming down one evening by the Luppersberg, hailing every turn in the landscape with enthusiastic exclamations.

Years had never quenched in him the love of knowledge. At sixty he was still at work upon his History of Alsacian Antiquities, and never allowed himself to write a complete account of a ruined and defaced monument, or any relic of former days, until he had examined it a hundred times from every point of view.

"No man," said he, "who has had the happy privilege of being born in the Vosges, between Haut Bar, Nideck, and Geierstein has any business to think of travelling. Where are there nobler forests, older fir and beech trees, more lovely smiling valleys, wilder rocks? Where is the country with richer possessions in memorable story? Here, in olden times, used the high and powerful lords of Lutzelstein, Dagsberg, Leiningen, and Fénétrange, to fight clad in mail from head to foot. Here the eldest son of the Church and the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire exchanged blows in the Middle Ages with swords two yards long. What are our wars compared with those terrible battles where warriors fought hand to hand, where they hammered upon each other's skulls with huge battle-axes, and drove the dagger between the bars of the closed visor? Were not those heroic feats of arms? was not that a courage worthy to be chronicled to all posterity? But our young people want to see new things; they are not satisfied with their own native land: they must wander through Germany, make tours in France. Worse still, they abandon science and its noble fields for trade, arts, industry, as if there had not been in the former glorious days much more curious industrial arts and pursuits than in our own day! Witness the Hanseatic League, the maritime enterprise of Venice, Genoa, and the Levant, Flemish manufactures, Florentine art, the triumphs in art of Rome and Antwerp! No! all that is laid aside; people now-a-days pride themselves upon their ignorance of those glorious days; above all, they neglect our dear old Alsace. Now, candidly, Theodore, don't all those tourists remind you of husbands leaving their fair sweet lawful wives to run after ugly coquettes?"

And Bernard Hertzog shook his learned head, his eyes rounded with wonder and excitement, just as if he had been standing before the ruins of Babylon.

His partiality to the usages and customs of old times accounted for his having, for forty years past, worn the full-skirted plush coat, the velvet breeches, the black silk stockings, and the silver shoe-buckles of our grandfathers. He would have thought himself disgraced had he put on trousers; and to cut off his pigtail would have been a profane deed.

So the worthy chronicler was going to Haslach on the 3rd of July, 1835, to examine with his own eyes a little bronze Mercury recently unearthed in the old cloister of the Augustins.

He trotted on with a tolerably elastic stop under a burning sun. Mountains succeeded mountains, valleys sank into other valleys, the footpath went up, then went down again, turned, now to the right, now to the left, until Ma?tre Hertzog began to wonder how it was that he had not caught sight of the village spire an hour ago.

The fact was that after leaving Saverne he had inclined to the right, and was now penetrating into the Dagsberg woods with juvenile energy. At the rate he was going, in five or six hours he would have reached Phramond, eight leagues from his destination. But night was coming on apace, and the path was now becoming fainter, and under the tall trees only an indistinct track appeared.

The approach of night among the mountains is a melancholy sight; the shadows lengthen in the valleys, the sun withdraws, one by one, his rays from the darkening foliage, the silence deepens every minute. You look behind you; the groups and clumps of trees assume colossal proportions; a blackbird at the summit of a tree bids farewell to the parting day, then silence covers all like a funeral pall. You can only hear now the last year's dead leaves crisping under foot, and far, far, away a waterfall filling the valley with its monotonous hum. Bernard Hertzog began to pant a little; his clothes adhered to his skin with the running perspiration. His legs were beginning to give hints of surrendering.

"Confound that foolish Mercury!" he cried. "At this moment I ought to have been quiet at home in my own arm-chair, and Berbel, according to her praiseworthy custom, ought to be bringing me up upon a tray a cup of smoking hot coffee, while I am winding up my chapter upon the ancient armoury at Nideck. Instead of which, here I am floundering in holes, stumbling everywhere, and suppose I lost my way altogether and then broke my neck! There!-I said so! Was that a tree I knocked against? A hundred thousand bans and maledictions fall upon Mercury and Haas, the architect, who sent for me to look at it! and the scoundrels, too, who dug it up! I'll lay any wager that the boasted Mercury is nothing but some defaced and corroded bit of stone, without either nose or legs-some shapeless deformity like that little Hesus last year at Marienthal. Oh, you architects! you architects!-you are always finding antiquities everywhere. Luckily I had not my spectacles on, or I should have smashed them against that tree; but now I shall be obliged to find a bed somewhere among the bushes. What a road this is!-nothing but ruts, and holes, and pits, and loose rocks and boulders!"

In one of those moments when the good man, getting exhausted, was stopping for breath, he thought he could hear the grating of a saw far down the valley. What was his joy when he became certain that it was that!

"Heaven be praised!" he cried, plucking up his spirits; "now to push on with halting steps. Now I shall get a little rest. What a lesson this will be for me! Providence had compassion upon my rheumatism. What an old fool to go and expose myself to have to lie out in the woods at my time of life, to ruin my health and undermine my constitution! I shall remember this! Never shall I forget this warning!"

In a quarter of an hour the noise of falling water became more distinct; then a faint light broke through the trees. Ma?tre Bernard

then found himself at the top of the wood; he observed below the heath a stream running down the winding valley as far as he could see, and just before him the saw-mill, with its long dark posts and beams crossing and recrossing in the gloom like a huge spider.

He crossed the high-arched bridge over the rushing dam, and looked through the little window into the woodman's hut.

It was a low, dark shed leaning against a hollow in the rock. At the farther end of the natural cavity was a small pile of smouldering sawdust. In the front the boarded roof, weighted with heavy stones, descended to within three feet of the ground; in a corner at the right, a kind of box, full of dried heather; a few logs of oak, an axe, a massive bench, and other implements of toil, were lost in the shade. A resinous odour of pine-wood impregnated the air, and the ruddy smoke eddied through a fissure in the rock.

Whilst the good man was observing these objects, the woodman, coming out from the mill, saw him, and cried-

"Halloo!-who is that?"

"I beg your pardon; pray pardon me," said my worthy uncle, rather startled. "I am a traveller who has lost his way."

"Hey!" cried the other man; "good guide us! Is not that Ma?tre Bernard, of Saverne? You are very welcome indeed, Ma?tre Bernard. Don't you know me?"

"No, indeed! How should I in this dark night?"

"Parbleu!-of course not! But I am Christian; I bring you your contraband snuff every fortnight. But come in, come in! We will soon get a light."

They passed stooping under the little low door, and the woodman, having lighted a pine-torch, stuck it into a split iron rod to serve as a candlestick, and a bright light, clear and white as moonshine, filled the hut, lighting up every corner of it.

Christian, standing in shirt-sleeves, his broad chest uncovered, and with a pair of canvas trousers hitched up about his hips, looked a good-natured fellow enough; his tawny beard came down in a point to his waist; his huge bull head was covered with bristling brown hair; his small grey eyes inspired confidence.

"Take a seat, master," he said, rolling a log of wood before the fire. "Are you hungry?"

"Why, you know, my lad, your mountain air does excite one's appetite."

"Very well; you are just in time. I have got some very good potatoes quite at your service."

At the mention of potatoes Uncle Bernard could not help grimacing; he remembered, with the longing of affection, old Berbel's good suppers, and had a difficulty in coming down to the humble realities before him.

Christian seemed to take no notice; he took five or six potatoes out of a sack, and put them into the embers, taking care to cover them entirely; then, sitting down on the hearthstone, he lighted his pipe.

"But just tell me, master, how is it that you are here to-night, at six leagues' distance from Saverne, in the gorge of Nideck?"

"The gorge of Nideck!" cried my uncle Bernard, springing from his seat in great surprise.

"To be sure! You may see the ruins from here, about two gunshots distant."

Master Bernard looked out, and really did recognise the ruins of Nideck, just as he had described them in the twenty-fourth chapter of his History of Alsacian Antiquities, with their high towers crumbling away at the foot, and dominating over the abyss into which the torrent falls.

"But I thought I was near Haslach!" he cried with amazement.

The woodcutter burst out laughing.

"Haslach!-you are two leagues away from it! I see how it is. You went wrong at the old oak-tree. You took the right instead of the left path. When you are in the woods you must look well about you. A few yards wrong at starting come to leagues at the end!"

Bernard Hertzog at this discovery was in consternation.

"Six leagues from Saverne," he murmured, "and all mountains!-and if I have to go two more to-morrow, that will be eight!"

"Oh, don't mind that! I will guide you to the road down the valley. And don't forget. You are very fortunate."

"Fortunate? You are joking with me, Christian."

"Yes, you are lucky. You might have had to spend the night in the woods. There is a thunderstorm coming on from Schnéeberg; if that had overtaken you you might have had some reason to complain, with the rain at your back and thunder and lightning all round. But now you shall sleep in a good bed," pointing to the box in the corner; "you will sleep there like a log, and to-morrow, when the sun is up, we will start; you will be rested, and you will get there in very good time."

"You are very kind, Christian," said Uncle Bernard with tears in his eyes. "Give me a potato, and then I will go to bed. I am more tired than anything else. I am not hungry. One hot potato will be quite enough for me."

"Here is a couple as mealy as chestnuts. Taste that, master; take a small glass of kirschwasser, and then lie down. I have to set to work again. I have got to saw fifteen more planks before I can go to bed."

Christian rose, set the bottle of kirschwasser on the window-sill, and went out. The alternate movement of the saw, which had for a time ceased, now recommenced amidst the rushing of the stream.

Ma?tre Hertzog, astonished as he was to find himself in those remote solitudes between Dagsberg and the ruins of Nideck, sat long meditating what he must do to rejoin his household gods; then, gliding down the stream of his usual meditations, he went over the fabulous, heroic, or barbarous legends and chronicles of the former lords of that land. He went back to the Tribocci, that German nation settled about Strasbourg, remembering Clovis, Chilperic, Theodoric, Dagobert, the furious struggle between Brunehaut, Queen of Austrasia, and Frédégonde, queen of Chilperic of France, and many heroes and heroines besides. All these fierce personages passed in review before his eyes. The vague murmuring of the trees, the inky blackness of the rocks, favoured this strange invocation. All the distinguished personages of his chronicle were there, and the boar, and the wolf, and the bear were among them.

At last, unable to hold out any longer, the good man hung his three-cornered hat upon a peg in the wall and lay down upon the heath. The cricket sang its monotonous song upon the hearth, a few surviving sparks were running hither and thither in the smouldering fire, his eyelids dropped, and he slept a deep, sound sleep.

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