dezembro 09, 2012

Northern Lights and other psychic stories by E. D'Espérance 3

Northern Lights and other psychic stories
by E. D'Espérance.

Author of Shadowland

London
George Redway
1899



Benno, the vagabond

"Ben-no-o! Ben-no-o-o! Clear and shrill came the cry and was echoed from cliff to cliff, till the mountains themselves took it up in mocking mimicry, and derisively repeated "En-no-o-o-o!"

But there was no answer, except the twitter of a bird or the sound of trickling water.

"Ben-no-o-o!" Louder still, the mountains took it up again, and called in thunderous tones "Ben-no-o-o-o! No-o-o-o! O-o-o-o!"

There was no other sound to break the silence. The girl, who had made a trumpet of her hands, now shaded her eyes with them and glanced keenly about her. She gazed a little suspiciously at a clump of dwarf pine trees, some little distance to the left, and then, with a look of vexation, turned and reentered the door of the Alm.

"A perfect young wretch," she muttered angrily; "it's the second time already, this week, he has served me the same trick."

"What has he done, my Cari?" asked the man, from the interior of the kitchen, where he was busy filling cartridges.

"Done! Just what he always does - let the cows stray out of hearing and then disappear himself, leaving me to find and drive them home alone."

"And just now you particularly wanted a quiet hour to talk to your sweetheart - is not that so?" he answered, laughing, putting his arm round her. "Well let him go! I'll help to bring home the cows presently, if he does not come." So saying, he drew the girl from the open doorway, and they disappeared together into the cool shadow of the kitchen.

Outside the Alm the sun shone fiercely on the bare rocks that gleamed red and hot; except here and there, where the declining rays threw the shadow of some great boulder or jutting cliff, the heat was as intense as on an African desert. There was snow still on the higher peak that stood sentinel-like above the Alm, but in the glare of the afternoon sun the very snow seemed to look hot.

Rising up eastward, a purplehaze was spreading itself that might betoken a storm, but as yet it was far off, and in the meantime the heat, reflected as it was by the bare grey rocks, seemed almost suffocating.

A few minutes after the girl had disappeared inside the building, the clump of firs which had seemed to attract her scrutiny, rustled a little curiously, seeing there was not a breath of wind stirring. Presently a bare, not over clean, leg wriggled itself into view, then another, till finally the whole form of a boy might have been seen lying flat on the ground. He listened cautiously for a moment; then, apparently satisfied that he was not observed by the girls or man, he slowly and noiselessly crept out of sight of the building, behind a boulder of rock. There he stopped, gazing fondly and admiringly on the rifle he had carried with him.

The hands and face of the boy might, from their appearance, never have made the acquaintance of soap and water, and the tangle of matted curly hair was only kept out of the glittering brown eyes by a ragged old felt hat, which sun and rain together had painted a nondescript colour that might once have been a green. The crown and brim had parted company in more than one place, but it was adorned by an eagle's plume, the boy's most valued treasure. Not that he was particularly dandified in his outward appearance, but he loved to excite envy and admiration in the breasts of the village boys, and met their inquiries as to where he obtained it with a discreet silence, only by various gestures and veiled hints leading them to imagine that a deed of valour and prowess was connected with the trophy.

Benno, the vagabond Benno, was the terror of all the mothers in the village, who feared for the morals of their offspring, but the delight of all the urchins, who considered him a most enviable creature, because he had no one to compel him to wash himself, comb his hair, or make himself otherwise respectable.

Benno, the vagabond, was a waif, who came from nobody knew where, and belonged to no one. He had been found, when an infant, in the church porch, wrapped in an old horse blanket, and sucking contentedly at a bottle of milk that was fastened to the bundle.

Nobody knew where he had come from, nor who had laid him there. There were some ill-natured people who said that Räsl at the Inn could have told if she had chosen to do so, but if she could, she never did; so the infant was given to an old woman to keep till something should be found out about him. In the meantime the parish furnished the milk he drank, and duly grumbled when it had to be paid for.

After awhile he managed to crawl on hands and knees, and then to crawl on hands and knees, and then to toddle about on two sturdy legs. Just then he began to get into mischief, and from that time he had never got out of it again. Benno was no respecter of persons; he played his mischevous pranks on all with a lofty disregard of station or rank. From driving a team of oxen a mile on the wrong road, while the owner was inside the Inn drinking a screw into the jamb of the burgomaster's front door, and compelling that worthy man to get out of the window, no easy matter when one considered the great amount of flesh he carried and his shortness o breath, combined with the very natural irritation he felt at being obliged to adopt so undignified a means of exit. From tickling trout in the stream to damming that same stream and flooding the whole village street, or from putting snares across the road for the unwary feet of bemuddled merrymakers, to setting snares for more unlawful game. Benno was an adept in this latter accomplishment, being a pupil of one Wilder, who was known to all gamekeepers and foresters on the country-side as a dangerous and incorrigible poacher, although they had never been lucky enough to catch him in his nefarious works.

People used to say that Benno's brown eyes, that always had a mischievous twinkle lurking in their depths, were exactly like Wilder's, when Wilder was laughing or joking with the girls, and they said the resemblance did not stop there, for Brenno bid fair to become as clever in setting snares and trapping game as ever Wilder was. But whether the gossip were right or not, Wilder was often kinder to the ragged little vagabond than other people were, and frequently shared his dinner of black bread and sausage, while sitting under a hedge, and more than once bestowed some odd coins on him, which Benno promptly exchanged for cakes of confectionery. Once he bought some cigarettes with the money thus bestowed and proudly strutted down the village street, with head held high and smoke issuing in volumes from his lips, in exact imitation of Wilder, but it made him so deadly sick afterwards that, although he boasted to the other boys of the quantity of tobacco he consumed, no one ever happened to see him indulging in cigarettes again.

According to his own accounts, Benno was a redoubtable hero and hunter. The stories he told of the battles he had fought with wild animals that he had encountered on his mountain expeditions, of the mighty adventures and hairbreadth escapes ha had experienced, made the other boys wild with envy; and, seeing this, Benno would invent still wilder and more impossible adventures. He had discovered a family of bears, with whom he was on the most intimate and friendly terms; he had climbed the topmost peaks of the highest mountain, and stolen the eggs from the eagle's nest; he had fought with and killed the great eagle of which the hunters spoke with bated breath, or could only boast of having seen once or twice in as many years.

"But I," said Benno, "held him by the neck with one hand and clung to the face of the rock with the other, while he flapped his great wings in my face till I thought I must have fallen into the crevasse, but I held so fast and kept so tight a hold of his neck that he could do nothing; - then at last he was dead.

"Why didn't you fetch him here? The bürgermeister would have given you ten marks for him."

"I intended to fetch him - thought I would not have taken ten marks for him, no! nor twenty either - but in trying to climb down again I missed hold, and in my efforts to save myself the eagle fell into the gulch. I tried to catch it, and nearly fell myself - I only clutched the feathers, and one came out in my hand," here Benno stroked the eagle plume in his old hat with a caressing touch.

"Is that the feather, Benno?" asked his hearers, who had listened eagerly to the story, admiring his bravery and cleverness.

"Yes, that is the feather."

"They say in the village you stole it out of Anton's hat, when he lay asleep on the hillside."

"Do they? That is Anton's story, I suppose, he didn't like to tell that he gave his old feather to Rosmarin at the Inn for a seidel of beer, when he had no money left to buy a drink - but I was there and saw him."

"Has Rosmarin got it in her hat now?"

"Better ask her," said Benno shortly, and turned the conversation to another topic.

Old Prygel sent his pretty daughter Cari up to the mountain Alm with the cows, and Benno went too to herd them. This sort of work suited Benno; he could lie in the sun all day long, making the mountains ring again with the wild yoddling cries, which no one could make so well as he. The cows and goats learned to obey the shrill sounds and turn their heads and footsteps Almwards, when they heard his call, or follow him obediently when he went singing at the tip of his voice to some new slope where the herbage grew more plentifully. Here they would quietly graze while Benno lay on his back staring up into the blue sky, or watching the antics of the chamois as they leaped from crag to crag on the rocks above him, and speculating on their chances of life if he only possessed a gun.

Benno's greatest ambition was to possess a gun, and to be able to kill something. Not that he was of a particularly bloodthirsty disposition - quite the contrary. He had been known to nurse a goat that had got wounded in a fight, and goats are not the most tractable of creatures when they are hurt; Benno, however, tended him patiently in spite of the threatening horns. He had also doctored a dog with a broken leg. Even an old crow, whose wing had been broken, received the most careful attention, which it afterwards repaid by hopping after the boy, and stealing his dinner of bread and sausage whenever it had the chance. They were a disreputable pair, Benno and the crow; he with his shock head of curly dark hair, his dirty hands, bare brown knees and feet, his ragged shirt and breeches - the crow equally ragged and dirty, having lost many of its feathers in a fight with Rattl, the dog belonging to Cari's sweetheart. Rattl had got the worst of it, but crow had come out of the conflict with a bald head and minus his tail feathers, and, as the lame wing hing limply to the ground, and trailed as he hopped about after Benno, he was a very disreputable-looking crow indeed. However, the damage to his personal appearance did not in the least lessen his self-esteem, for he picked as impudently as ever at Benno's base legs and toes, if they came too near for his comfort, and gave a threatening croak if the dog presumed to eat from the dish till he - the crow - had satisfied his hunger. Rattl had grown wise, and, remembering the battle, he allowed the crow the first innings, and kept watch for his own opportunity from a safe distance.

Benno's ambition to kill something was not therefore due to a want of kindliness to animals, but rather to a spirit of emulation, and a desire to shine in the eyes of the village boys as the hero he had always made himself out to be.

He had seen Fritz coming; in fact, had watched him with his keen brown eyes for an hour or more, as the young man toiled upwards towards the Alm, where his sweetheart was awaiting him. Something he would be fully in sight, and sometimes lost to view behind some sheltering slope, again emerging picking his way lighthcartedly. Benno saw that he carried the new rifle he had heard so much talk about, and a wild desire to inspect it more closely seized him.

Watching Fritz disappear into the Alm, Benno sauntered after him with an assumed air of careless indifference. He heard the voices of Cari and Fritz within, as he dropped on his hands and knees, and crept silently under the window and along to the doorway. He knew Fritz's custom of setting his rifle and belt in the porch when he entered; he knew also that he would not be permitted to touch the weapon. But in spite of that, Benno crept quietly along close to the wall, unsuspected by the pair of lovers inside, who had so much to say to each other. Yes, there was the rifle, and a beauty it was! Benno's eyes glittered greedily and his hands itched to grasp it; he stretched out his arm and touched it with his finger tips - another little hitch along the ground, and his fingers closed on the stock. Without a sound he drew it from its resting-place, and brought it down beside him, while the pair inside laughed and talked gaily, unconscious of the thief close at hand.

Quickly and noiselessly Benno crawled away and seated himself behind the clump of dwarf pines, with the rifle on his knees and the crow hopping round about him, evidently as much interested and curious as Benno himself. Benno examined the weapon carefully and delightedly. He took out the cartridges and put them in again with a sigh. If he only dared to fire it off! He crept out of sight behind a boulder and made his way quickly by a roundabout cattle path in the direction where a little earlier he had seen a herd of chamois. He could not get near the spot, but rifle he knew would carry a ball several hundreds of feet, and the temptation was too strong. He knew the mountain was too strong. He knew the mountains so well, and was a good a - climber as the goats he tended, so he scrambled on out of sight and hearing of the couple at the Alm. Then he lay down to search with his sharp eyes for some sign of the chamois.

Benno's eyes and ears were sharp as needles, but he was so intent on his watch for his fourfooted prey that he neither saw nor heard anything approaching from below or behind, till demanding what he was doing. It was Wilder. Wilder also carried a rifle, and any one might have demanded with reason what he was doing there, but Benno did not think of that; he only delightedly displayed the beautiful rifle he had borrowed, and which Wilder's experienced eye recognised as a masterpiece of its kind. Wilder took it in his hands, weighed it, raised it to his shoulder, sighted it as if taking aim. Benno's  quick eye following the diection, saw a chamois within range. "Give me the rifle," he whispered; "I want to shoot it - I will have it," he cried, as he grasped the man's arm.

"Be quiet, you young fool! I will bring it down."

"No, no, I will - let go, let go!" and he seized the stock of the gun with one hand and the man's arm with the other, struggling for the possession of the weapon. The man tried to shake him off, swearing as he did so, but Benno, seeing the opportunity escaping him, held on. Loosening the hold of the man's arm, he seized the barrel of the rifle, and, giving it wrench, freed it for an instant from Wilder's grasp, but in the same moment there was a blinding flash, a terrible shock, and Benno felt himself falling - falling - falling. An agonising pain - then darkness and silence. The sun sank behind the farthest peaks, the blue mist rose up and spread itself over the valley and the lower slopes of the mountains. The stars came out one by one, blinking down from the purple sky; then the moon rose and shed a silvery gleam on the snowy peaks of the silent mountains, sending soft beams of tender light caressingly over snow and grey rock, over fir and shrub, and on two quiet forms, that lay so still and white with faces upturned to the starry heavens; the one on a little plateau, the other at the bottom of a crevasse some fifty or more feet below, transfixed on a sharp needle-like projection of rock.

---

Down in the village there was a great commotion. The men stood in groups round the smithy, where the blacksmith, hammer in hand, related the news of the day, while the oxen brought to be shod stood patiently by, reflectively chewing the cud, with a kind of wondering inquiry in their eyes as the cause of the unusual delay and excitement.

Teams of horses and mules waited in the village street, while their drivers stopped to listen to the news.

Women stood at the doorways discussing the terrible occurrence that was agitating the population of the whole valley, while the boys and girls forgot their lessons and their play as they listened to the details of the murder.

Yes! That was the word that was being passed from mouth to mouth till the whole village rang with the dreadful sound, and the very air seemed full of horror.

Poor Wilder had been murdered, and Fritz, the forester, was to be tried on the morrow for having murdered him.

Never before had anything so dreadful happened in the countryside. No wonder that none of the villagers could think or talk of anything else. Wilder - the handsome ne'er-do-well, who had made love to all the village lassies by turns, who was by far the best dancer, the best singer, the best shot, of all the men in the village - was dead, killed by murderous bullet, and every one forgot his faults and failings, forgot that they had always spoken scornfully of him, forgot that they had advised their sons and daughters to avoid him as something dangerous. They only remembered his handsome face, his careless good-nature and little helpful ways. Räsl from the Inn remembered all these and more, and she wept bitterly for the dead man, sometimes wept and sometimes prayed that his murderer might speedily be found and brought to justice. People said she was like one crazy with grief, and shook their heads, wondering why she should grieve more than other people for the dead man.

At first no one knew whom to suspect of the dreadful deed, then strange stories began to be rumoured. Two gentlemen told some one that they knew Wilder and Fritz the forester had quarrelled, and that fritz had threatened Wilder. So the Burgomaster and his clerk, and the Notary and his clerk, sought the two gentlemen and wrote down all she said. And then the whole story was written which caused such dismay in the village. This is what they were saying to each other.

Fritz the forester went from the village one morning to see that no trap were laid, and no snares spread for the game. On his sweetheart, and stayed there while Cari made him some coffee. While he was there Wilder came in, and sat laughing and joking. He asked Cari to give him a kiss, and when she refused, he said he would take one. Then Fritz and Wilder had quarrelled. They were still quarreling, and Cari was crying, when two gentlemen, tourists, came in at the door, and asked for some milk. While they waited for it and chatted with Cari, Wilder went away laughing; as he left he made a mocking bow to the angry Fritz, and said he would get the kiss sometime when he was not there to interfere. Then whistling merrily he disappeared. In a minute or two Fritz went to the door and saw that his rifle was gone. He became furiously angry, and rushed out, saying that Wilder had taken it, and he would punish him for the theft and for his rudeness to Cari. Cari called him to come back, but he would not return.

The two gentlemen, having drunk the milk Cari brought to them, said "Good-day" to her, then went to their way. They had not left the house many minutes, when they heard the sound of a shot, and one had said to the other, "I hope that fine young forester is not getting himself into some trouble."

They had continued their way, and reached the tourist' shelter, where they met other friends. There they passed the night. At sunrise next morning they continued the ascent of the mountain, and having reached the summit, began to descend again. On the way down they came to a little plateau on the edge of a crevasse, and there lay the dead body of Wilder. Very near to him lay two rifles, one almost a new one, which everybody in the village knew belonged to Fritz the forester.

In vain Fritz denied having seen Wilder after he left the Alm, though he confessed that he had tried to find him, and that being very angry, most likely he would have quarrelled a second time had they met; but he had not seen him, and he went home without his rifle, feeling sure Wilder would return it to him next day.

In vain Cari wept and protested, and in vain the gentlemen urged their opinion that there had not been time for Fritz to reach the plateau when they heard the shot. It was of no use. Poor Fritz was sent to the town to be tried for the murder of Wilder, and everybody knew the case looked very black for him.

No wonder all the village was agog from morning till night, no wonder nothing else could be thought of spoken about. Some said it was clear Fritz had committed the murder in his anger, and others said they could not believe it; Fritz was a fine young fellow, and too good-natured to hurt any one.

There were three women in the village who did not join in the gossip and avoided every one. These three women had wept till the fount of tears was dry, and they could only moan and pray. One of these women was the mother of Fritz the forester; one was Cari, his sweetheart; and the other was Räsl at the Inn - but nobody knew why she wept, for it was not pity for Fritz that brought the streaming tears from her eyes, nor the moans from her lips.

And through all the confusion, consternation, wonder and distress, nobody thought to ask where Benno was. It was only when things had quietened down, and people had time to think of other matters, that one boy ventured to ask another when he had last seen Benno. But nobody thought much about it. Benno had been used to going and coming at his own sweet will, neither asking nor waiting for permission. And Cari was in too much trouble to give a thought about him and wondered where the merry-faced, mischief-loving vagabond Benno was, she did not say so.

So the time went on, and the day of Fritz's trial drew nearer and nearer. The more people thought about the affair the less hope there seemed that he would ever clear himself, and even he, sitting in the dreary prison cell waiting for the day of trial, never once thought of Benno.

---

More than an hour's wearisome journey on the mountains, to the east of the Alm, where Cari and Benno had spent the long summer days, there is a long narrow opening or defile, caused in days long ago by a split in the mountains. In some places it is scarcely more than a crack, where a man can with difficulty squeeze himself through; in others it is some four or five feet broad, and forms a sort pathway, that seems to divide the mountain range in two. This pass or defile used at used at one time to be known and dreaded by travellers as the lurking place of robbers, bandits, and smugglers. Many were the stories told of wicked deeds committed in the dark and gloomy shadows of the mountain pass. At that time gendarmes used to patrol the mountains near the entrance to the crooked narrow path, to protect travellers who made use of this short cut from the villages on the southern slopes of the great mountain to those on the north. But that was long ago, before the new road was made, a little to the westward, on which horse and mule waggons could travel with safety. Now the narrow pass was seldom or never used. People no longer feared robbers, but they feared the rheumatics and influenza, which lurked in the cold and damp shadows; for even on the brightest summer days the sunbeams seldom penetrated the gloomy recesses of the pass, and in winter it was usually filled to the depth of several feet with snow.

In many places great boulders had fallen from the rocks above, blocking up the pathway, and on those spots where the sun did sometimes shine there had sprung up bushes of the same stunted kind that grew on the mountain slopes, so that, as a road, it was no longer practicable, and travellers, even the most venturesome, avoided rather than sought to explore its dark recesses.

It was said that a lawless gang of smugglers and poachers had their hiding-place and stores in this ravine, but no one had been able to find them, although great rewards had been offered for their capture.

The gendarmes had been through the pass and examined every hole and corner many times, but there was never a sign of a hole likely to hide a smuggler or poacher, let alone his stores, so they had to go back disappointed of the reward they hoped to earn.


But in spite of their failure to find it, such a hiding-place did exist, - and exists still, though now no longer used, because every gendarme knows of its whereabouts.

Some hundred feet from the bottom of the ravine there grew a large clump of dwarf oak trees, that clung to the steep sides of the rock like creeping plants. Hidden behind them was a steep decline led through a sort of tunnel formed by a great boulder, having fallen from the heights and wedging itself fast on a ridge. The tunnel thus formed was a very low, a man had to crawl for several feet on his hands and knees, then the declivity grew more steep and the roof in consequence was higher, and instead of a narrow tunnel, a good-sized cavern was formed by the fallen boulder. A crack in the rock on one side admitted a little light, though not much, for the crack was partly overgrown with shrubs, still it was light enough to show that this cavern was a sort of store-house, but of a kind that was forbidden by the law. Small kegs containing brandy were piled on one side; parcels, which might be innocent enough to judge from their appearance, were piled in a corner. Traps, nets, and other adjuncts to the poacher's business lay about, and in another corner hung the bodies of deer and game, ready to be taken to the town and sold.

Nor were these things all the cavern contained. On a bed of moss beside the brandy kegs, and covered with a coarse horse rug, lay the pale emaciated figure of a boy, who gazed anxiously with great dark eyes at two men, who sat conversing in low tones at the end nearest the light. He moved his head and hands restlessly, and moaned a little now and again. The men continued their subdued talk, and after a while the boy dropped into an uneasy sleep. A sound of scraping and shuffing was heard from the tunnel, and the men seemed glad to hear it, for one of them gave a sigh of relief, and a moment later a man made his appearance and was welcomed by the other two.

"How is it with Benno?" asked the new-comer in a low tone.

"Bad," replied the others. "He cannot ast much longer."

"I never knew any one could live so long with a broken back," he added.

"Poor little fellow, it's hard lines for him."

"What news from down yonder?"

"Bad. In the first place, since we lost Wilder, Karl has been seen too often going with goods, and the gendarmes are under orders to make another search. They may come at any time, and if there comes a snowfall, as it threatens, we shall be tracked. We must clear out of here at once. Down yonder," he continued with a jerk of the head, indicating the village below, "there's an awful upset. Young Fritz is to be tried the day after to-morrow, and they don't think he'll get off. Räsl at the Inn gave me the news; she's almost broken-hearted; says she'll never get a quiet hour till poor Wilder's murderer gets his deserts."

"She was always sweet on Wilder, was Räsl."

"Not more than he was on her; they used to say that that boy" - a little backward movement of the thumb towards the corner finished the sentence, and the other two men nodded comprehendingly.

"It's an unlucky business for us as well as for everybody," sighed one of the three. "Wilder was the cleverest among us in getting things disposed of, and now Räsl will not care to help us when he is gone. And There's the boy. What's to be done with him?" 

"Better for him, poor little fellow, if we had left him where we found him. It would have saved him all theses weeks of pain and torment. It's a pity, such a jolly little chap as he is."

"We must settle what's to be done about him," said the man who had entered last. "We must clear out of this at once." 

"We can't leave the boy."

"We can't take him with us."

"It's hard, very hard for him, but it won't be for long, unless I'm much mistaken."

The men relapsed into silence, each revolving the question within himself.

"Natzi! Martin! Are you there?"

The weak voice reached the ears of the men, and each started to the side of the sick boy.

There was something of a woman's tenderness in the way in which the one smoothed back the damp curls from the pale brow, and in the way the other the rusty tin containing water to the parchel lips.

"It won't do to let them hang Fritz, you know," said the feeble voice. "For one thing, he hadn't anything to do with it; and another thing, Wilder is not dead, so there is no sense in letting fritz be hanged, is there?"

"Not dead?"

"No! he isn't dead, never has been, he's been coming now and then to look after me ever since you fetched me here. I thought he wanted to keep dark for something, so I never said a word - but w mustn't let them hang Fritz."

The men glanced at each other, and the one stroked the dark curls with his rough hand.

"He was always good to me, was Wilder," continued the boy. "He never troubled about the shot and never blamed me; he knew it was an accident. But it won't do to let them hang Fritz! Wilder says he's been down in the village, trying to explain, but they take no notice, trying to explain, but they take no notice of him not what he says - no more than if they didn't see him. He couldn't understand it, and it worried him, because he doesn't know what to do."

Martin held the rusty cup to the boy's lips, but he pushed it aside.

"Don't you think you could help me to get down to the village? I could tell them, anyway, that Fritz hadn't anything to do with it - then if Wilder comes, they will see there is nothing to make a fuss about. Queer they don't listen to him, isn't it? He does look different somehow; perhaps they don't know him again since he got well."

"What do you think of that?" whispered one of the men as they moved away when the boy dropped into another doze.

"He's going fast," replied the other, "his mind is wandering."

Then glancing at his companion, he said: "Do you think it could be done? He's light enough now, poor little chap. We might manage it with a sort of hurdle slung between us?"

"He can't last much longer, and if he died going down, well it wouldn't make much difference, and there is a chance of him helping Fritz if he lives to tell them, not that Fritz is any friend of ours, but it would please the boy."

They set to work and made a rough litter with branches and moss. On it they gently lifted the sick boy, covering him carefully with the horse-rug that had seved for his coverlet.

The sun was setting as the men emerged from the darkness of the cavern with their burden. The change from the perpetual gloom to the brilliant liht, that lay like golden sheen over the mountains, made the boy gasp with delight and clasp his wasted hands in ecstacy. The change from the foetid atmosphere of the hiding=place to the fresh, cool, sunlighted air of the Alps, the glory of the sky, the sound of the breeze, that lifted and played with his hair, the sense of motion, as his bearers swung him carefully between them was more than the boy could bear, and the great tears welled from under the closed lids, and involuntary sobs shook the wasted form.

The sun sank behind the farthest mountain range, and then commenced the difficult and dangerous descent in the darkness.

Dangerous in the darkness, but for these men it was safer than in the light of day, for they ran less risk of being captured. As it was, they knew might be seen and fired upon at any moment, but if they were lawbreakers and looked upon as criminals, they were brave enough and tender-hearted enough to risk their liberty for the sake of the sick boy they carried.

It was a terrible journey, two men carrying the litter between them, while the third relieved them in turn or carried the lantern to guide their feet. They stepped carefully, but the road was a rough one, and each jerk of stumble was followed by a moan from the boy, but these grew fainter and fainter and at last ceased.

"He's gone, I think," said on of the men.

"I don't know," replied the other doubtfully; perhaps he's only fainted, we'd better go on."

So they went on, hour after hour, stopping to rest now and again, but Benno never stirred. Just as the first gleam of the rising sun tinged the topmost peaks of the snowy heights they entered the village at the back of the church, - and paused, looking at each other.

"What shall we do with him?" was the question each mutely asked the other, and they were started by the reply coming from the lips of Benno himself, whom they thought dead, "Lay me in the church porch, where they found me at first." And the ghost of an amused smile played on the pallid face as the men took up their burden and carried it to the porch, then stood little figure that tried so valliantly to hide its weakness.

"Now go Martin. Go now, Natzi, before it gets lighter. Get into the woods as quick as you can, and don't let them catch you. I'll be all right. Some one will soon be stirring, and I'm quite comfortable. You'll be tired! I'm pretty heavy, am I not? But you did splendidly. I'll tell them how good you have been to me. Why! What's the matter! You are not crying, are you! Don't you fret, Wilder and I'll square up things for Fritz, an'they won't be so hard on you when I tell them how you've looked after me all this time. Good-bye, good-bye. It's good to see the sunshine on the peaks, isn't it? I feel as if I'd get well pretty quick now. Go now, it's getting lighter. Good-bye, good-bye."

So they left him, and went with quick steps in the direction of the woods. When they reached the corner of the church wall they looked back to see the dark eyes watching them wistfully, but the lips smiled and the wasted hand waved a cheerful farewell.

They were rough crime-stained men, whose liberty and maybe their lives were forfeit to the law; but they felt a choking in their throats; and a dimness in their eyes, as they hurried to reach the shelter of the forest.

A little later, when the sun was spreading its rays over the lower slopes of the mountains, bringing out the brilliant colours of the autumn foliage, when the shutters of the cottage window were being opened to admit the light of a new day, the door of the vicarage opened, and the priest came out and turned towards the church. He was thinking as he went. When rising from his couch he had remembered that just twelve years ago something had happened.

He had come from his door and made his way to the morning prayers, as he had done every day of the thirty years since he had come to the village to be teacher, friend, and guide to its people. "Just twelve years ago!" he was saying to himself. He had reached the porch of the church and found there a bundle. In that bundle was an infant, that had looked up into his face with solemn brown eyes, and clutched at his hand with its tiny fingers when he had turned back the coarse coverlet in which it was rolled. "Just twelve years ago!" Where had become of him all these weeks? Benno the disreputable, Benno the incorrigible - the mischief-loving urchin, the horror of all wise mothers, the idol of their unwise sons. What had become of him? An unconscious smile played over the face of the priest as he recalled in thought the stories he had heard of the iniquities of this imp of mischief, this rollicking, boasting, round-faced, curly-haired, dark-eyed Benno.

The smile broadened as the picture of Benno in all his mischief rose before his mind's eye, and it had not faded when he reached the church porch. He rubbed his eyes - had the twelve years been a dream of the night? Had he only dreamed that the world was twelve years older? But no, the bundle was somewhat larger, and it lay on a bed of moss - and these dark eyes that looked up into his, the fingers that clutched his hand as he turned down the horse-rug? Yes, they were the same, only grown a little larger, the eyes more wistful, the fingers longer, less round and chubby, but they were the eyes and fingers of Benno - Benno the foundling of twelve years ago - Benno the vagabond of to-day.

---

Benno lay on a bed, cleaner, whiter, better than he had ever lain upon in his young life before. At one side of the bed sat the priest'on the other knelt Räsl from the Inn, with her face hidden in the bed-clothes. By her side stood an old woman, the mother of Fritz the forester, and near by sat Cari. All three women had wept and prayed over the tragedy of their lives. Now they wept and prayed for the boy, who had told them the story of how that tragedy had come about; but the one who hid her face in the bedclothes wept bitterer tears than the other two, for her trouble was the greatest, because it was locked up in her own heart, and, except the village priest, there were only two who knew of it. One of these was herself, and the other was God.

At the table sat the Burgomaster and his clerk, and the Notary and the schoolmaster, who was the Notary's clerk. They had been writing down the story told by Benno, and when it was finished, the Burgomaster wiped his eyes and tried to read what had ben written, but his voice was shaky, and he could not go on. Then the priest took the paper and read it, although his voice was trembling too. But he read on, and the others listened and watched Benno's face the while.

The boy told his story and it was noted word for word jus as he gave it:

"You see I wanted to have a look at Fritz's rifle - I never meant to keep it. I took it from the porch and ran away with it. Then Wilder came and took it from me, and when I tried to get it back to shoot a chamois, the barrel was pointed to Wilder, when it must have gone off and hurt him. I lost my balance and fell I do not know where, but Wilder got better very soon, for he came and talked to me as I lay on the rocks below. He went away for help - he could not carry me himself. He came again and again, telling me to wait and he would bring Räsl and some of the women to help, as the men would not listen to him. At last he came with Martin and Natzi. They and Wilder bore me to a shelter, and all were so good and kind to me. I was pleased to see Wilder looking so well; I had not meant to hurt him. Fritz was never there at all, so you must see that he is not blamed for the accident. Besides, it's nothing to make any bother about. I am getting better, and Wilder is as well as ever he was, so there's no murder. Nobody is dead. Poor Fritz! I am sorry they took him - but it will be all right, and he won't be vexed with me for taking his rifle. It was such a fine one"

"Yes, that's all," he said slowly when the last word had been read. "That's just how it happened, an' nobody's been killed or hurt after all. Martin an' Natzi were very good to me. You won't send the gendarmes after them, will you? And Wilder, - yes, Wilder was always good to me, - he gave me an eagle's feather - I am going to live with Wilder when I'm better. What are you crying for, Räsl? Wilder, an' it's all right now. Is that your hand, Räsl? Just hold mine so, an' I'll go to sleep."

---

In the issue, for one of the first days of October 1890, of the Munchner Nueste Nachrichten, a paragraph appears which, being translated, reads as follows: - 

"On Monday last the inhabitants of Oberau were startled by news that the innocence of Fritz Kramer the forester, who was about to stand his trial at the present sessions for the murder of a man called Wilder, in August last, had been fully established by the confessions of the one Benno, a boy of about thirteen.

"This boy, who had been missing from the village for several weeks, reappeared in a dying condition, and made a statement to the priest in the presence of the Burgomaster and Notary Public concerning the accident which resulted in the death of Wilder. This statement completely exonerates Fritz Kramer from any complicity in the affair, and he has been released from prison.

"The boy, whose spine had been fractured by a fall, has since died. His statements were clear and lucid, except in one particular; he persisted that Wilder was not dead. this illusion is attributable to the boy's extreme weakness, as it will be remembered that the body of the unfortunate man was discovered on the mountains by some tourists, and was buried two months ago."

Such was the story told in the newspapers. Not much to interest the careless reader, skimming the columns of his morning paper in search of items of political or commercial interests. No, he would glance over the paragraph, and straightway dismiss it from his mind with the possible remark - "Lucky for the forester." But there is much in it of interest to the student of psychology, and of special interest if that same student has a sincere respect and admiration for the simple people of the mountain villages where the tragedy occurred.

I tell the story as I heard it related by those who knew most of the circumstances, and leave the reader to judge for himself whether Wilder is still living, and whether he has been joined by poor little Benno, the vagabond.


***

Read other stories here.

page
  9 - Introductory


 55 - Benno, the vagabond


120 - Pepi


168 - Harald Arnhult

188 - Together

198 - Strange excursions

246 - The light of pentraginny



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