Close to midnight

The Buchenhof had long since been quite still; The lights in the bar in the Kretscham were also out. Only a dull glow came from the gable. Julius Schräger was still awake.

The bed was uncovered; It was dead quiet in the house, and Schräger had been on his feet all day from early on. But he did not lie down.

He went slowly to the window. The moon had risen, and in its half-bright light lay the village below. The steeple soared into the air.

Down there, very close to the tower, Hermann Raschdorf lay the first night! He was lying under frozen hard clods in a thin shroud, and his[104] Neighbors to the right and left were dead, people who had slept down there for a long time. How quiet it must be there! Only the worms burrowed into wood and bone, and occasionally a coffin lid broke. Then the clods subsided and – pressed heavily.

Shivered more obliquely and stepped back from the window.

He was a fool to worry so hard. There was nothing to be changed. So he sat on the edge of the bed and lay down on the pillows. But no sleep came over his eyes. He always looked into the red, softly singing light. As if the light was bleeding and whimpering, that’s it.

His eyes closed more obliquely. Why did he always think of Raschdorf? He was gone. He couldn’t harm him. He couldn’t bend his hair a hair. And it was a long time before he had to go down too. Then the other had long since turned to dust.

Something crept up there outside. Listened more obliquely. It came closer – stopped – was silent. But now it came again – it bumped into a chair and was quiet again. Then there was a distinct groan in front of the door.

Half-straightened himself obliquely. There was a cold sweat on his forehead. The hands propped themselves stiff and lame on the pillows.

Then it groaned outside again.

And now it groped at the door and slowly unlocked it.

“What? What? – – – Ah – you – Gustav! – What do you want?”

The idiot, poorly dressed, put his finger to his mouth.

[105]

»Pst! Quiet! I’ll come tell you something. ”

He crept up to his father with eerily glittering eyes and said softly in his ear:

“A is coming again!”

Pale obliquely.

“Gustav, how can you dare, now at night -”

»Pst! I am afraid! A comes – a runs across the fields – with the shotgun – I’ve seen – a want to shoot me – and then I come to you – you have to hide me – and you have to give him money so that a doesn’t shoot. ”

It got scalding hotter.

“Gustav, you will go straight to your room and go to sleep. That’s nonsense! ”

The idiot started howling, and Schräger had to cover his mouth.

“Quiet, Gustav, be quiet! Someone else can hear you. You can stay here. Don’t shout – don’t shout, Gustav! – Come on, lie down in bed, I’ll pull your pants down – so – and now put yourself on; I’ll cover you tight. ”

The idiot chattered his teeth when he was in bed.

“Don’t be afraid, Gustav, don’t be afraid, nobody is coming. Go to sleep! Nobody comes! ”

“You, I saw! A knows now that I lit it! ”

“Are you calm, Gustav, are you calm! You didn’t light it at all. ”

[106]

“Oh yes, I have! With two matches! A wanted to throw me out – uh, and it was so cold. ”

“If you’re not calm, Gustav, the gendarme will come. You can’t tell anyone that, otherwise you will be taken away. You can’t say that to anyone, do you hear? To no one! ”

Weird trembled with excitement.

“I’m not telling you. Otherwise a shoot me dead! ”

“Fall asleep, Gustav, fall asleep!”

“Oh, it burned so high and so hot, and now a will come. – Do you hear? – A comes on the stairs – Father, hide me! ”

He sat more obliquely on the edge of the bed and took the guy’s hands. He talked to him softly and told him to close his eyes.

The idiot hid deep in the bed and clasped his father’s hand. From time to time he cried out, then Schräger covered his mouth. A painful half an hour passed like this, then the boy began to cry softly and gradually fell asleep.

More obliquely rose. His face was pale. A low, heavy curse came over his lips. This man realized that a worm had buried itself in his marrow that would never leave.

He walked slowly to the desk against the wall and took out a newspaper. It was the same sheet that Gustav had first formed into a home on the Brandtage, then unfolded and looked at it so greedily.

[107]

The sheet contained a picture of a burning house from which unconscious people were being carried. This picture had aroused the idiot’s imagination and spurred him on to what he had done, which was why the peasants had spoken of a fire and Raschdorf had offended the fellow.

So everything had come about, and Schräger had learned the terrible truth that evening. When Gustav von Brande ran home, he had followed him. The boy had crouched under the stairs in the hallway and whimpered. He had taken him into the room and questioned him. And then the unhappy fellow fell screaming at his feet and confessed that he had lit the barn.

At first, Schräger hadn’t believed it. But then he searched the boy’s pockets and found the picture and a whole packet of sulfur sticks. Horrified, he had asked a few more questions and realized with certainty the terrible truth that his son was the arsonist.

And yet nothing had moved him then but the painful worry that the matter would be revealed. From then on, all his efforts were aimed at concealing the fact, even behind which his old efforts to acquire the Buchenhof were far behind.

Now he went to the sleeping lad’s bed. Even in sleep this face was ugly and dreary. The boy was breathing heavily and his shaggy hair was damp with sweat. In his dream he probably saw the terrible hunter of whom he was afraid.

[108]

Slanting head sank on his chest. That was one of the difficult hours of the night, as man holds accounts in his heart and is terrified of guilt and judgment.

When Gustav chatted!

They couldn’t harm the boy in court, he couldn’t be held responsible. But they would put him in an institution, render him harmless forever.

And that was what Schräger feared; he resisted with all his soul. He idolized his two children, like so often misers, who otherwise never have a spark of idealism in their souls, cling to their children with a messy glow that is alien to decent people. This is also a trait that the misers have in common with the beasts. And there was one more thing, the danger that the father’s boy might betray his fellow science.

His oath! His oath! How did he stand there!

Certainly, in the worst case, he could deny everything. The boy’s testimony was void in court. He could say he didn’t know anything. But the villagers! If their trust was gone, his business was lost – all lost. Under no circumstances could that happen.

And his old plan: to win the Buchenhof! It was good when the Raschdorf went under. What did Raschdorf concern him? After all, he had ruined himself!

The lamp went out. Weird startled. Now in the dark he too would be afraid. He pondered where he could light[109] could take. It could not be obtained without making noise. So the lonely sat down in an armchair.

Just not one thing, just don’t look at the window! The moonlight fell in so eerily, and the tower loomed down there, as if a ghostly, threatening giant finger rose from the middle of the churchyard.

Just don’t look at the window!

For a while, Schräger sat brooding. Then his lips began to twitch and he could speak words without his being able to prevent it: “I swear before God, the Almighty and All-Knowing, that I am telling the pure truth, not concealing anything -”

A groan; More obliquely jumped up. What did he think of? How did he come to say that – that?

He closed his eyes and pressed his head against the tiles of the stove; they were cold.

Cold! When the fire goes out and when life goes out, the cold comes.

“- do not hide anything and add nothing -”

Weird got up, and like all those who are hit by misery, he tried the fight with the terrible fury called the bad conscience, the useless, foolish fight which no mortal endures, if not the strong, holy hand of mercy God loosens the iron claw fingers mightily and gently from the bleeding shoulders.

“What did I do? What did I say? I only told what I knew. Just that! ”

“- do not hide anything -”

[110]

She looked more shyly at the bed.

One thing he had kept silent: that which would have solved everything.

“Do you know who the arsonist is?”

“No!”

And the black, hollow-eyed opponent threw the lonely man back into the armchair. There he pressed his face against the armrest.

As he gathered himself up, a new weapon came to him.

“Nobody is obliged to testify against their own flesh and blood. At least that’s what the court says, if not religion. ”

He breathed a sigh of relief. That would be the redemption, the victory! The demon stood at the door as if to go. But he turned around again.

“Do you trust the accused to commit the crime?”

Like a stream of lava, the question flooded through the lonely man’s soul, the question and the perjury answer he gave: “I don’t know for sure. It must have been him! ”

The demon came quietly closer and leaned into Schräger’s ear. The window cracked and crackled a little. That sounded like a low, mean laugh. And it was as if the terrible voice hissed:

“And do you know what else you did? You gave him the money to make him bankrupt; You went to the miller to stir him up, and then your friend took the shotgun and went over. And God asked: “Where are you from? I did not call you! “[111] God asked it in a thunderous voice. Your friend, however, pointed down at you with a pale hand and said: “He forced me on my way to you, he! … ««

“Gustav, wake up! Wake up, Gustav! I can’t be alone! ”

The lad started up, startled.

And Julius Schräger sought help from him, from the idiot who whimpered sleepily and soon fell asleep again.

A little later a wagon rattled past outside. More obliquely jumped to the window. He looked at the burning car lights like a relief. There were people – people.

But soon afterwards another light came slowly up over the fields, a lonely light that made the excited man shudder. He looked spellbound; he couldn’t move away from the window as if that light were forcing him. He rubbed his eyes, he wanted to banish the dazzling work. It didn’t work. The light came closer, closer and closer, straight towards the house. And it didn’t come on the road, no, across the fields, a white, pale, tumbling light.

The wind whimpered outside and the moon had set behind black clouds. It was almost completely dark.

Now the light was there. It was like a lantern and yet it was not in the shape of an ordinary lantern.

Now – now he could see it! A black figure carried the lantern, and a white one followed it. It was more obliquely seen in the light.

[112]

And now the figures with the light disappeared scurrying over in the beech courtyard.

Strictly turned around, his face contorted.

He remembered the death that brought Raschdorf home.

He had never been scared otherwise. But since he had one under the lawn that he took his breath away, there came the terrible fear – the insane, superstitious fear.

It was dark, horribly dark, and the boy gasped so heavily.

A means! A means to escape the agony!

Schräger groped his way up the walls, out the door and then quietly like a thief down the stairs to the dining room.

There he breathed a sigh of relief. He felt a little better. He closed the shutters carefully, then lit the lamp. Light! Light alone is a boon.

But it was lonely and frightened here too.

So he looked for the means.

For the first time he drank a lot of schnapps. That made him braver. Finally he filled a bottle, turned out the light, groped back to his bedroom so as not to leave the boy alone, sat down in the armchair and drank – drank from the bottle.

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