The Fatal Marksman
(Full text from The Fatal Marksman by Thomas de Quincey, as printed in the Thalia Theater program.
Translated from Der Freisch�tz - Eine Volkssage von August Apel und Friedrich Laun)
Listen, dame,<< said Bertram, the old forester of Linden, to his wife; >>once for all, listen. It's not many things, thou well know'st, that I would deny to thy asking: but as for this notion, Anne, drive it clean out of thy head; root and branch lay the axe to it; the sooner the better; and never encourage the lass to think more about it. When she knows the worst, she'll settle herself down to her crying; and when that's over, all's over; she submits, and all goes right. I see no good that comes of standing shilly-shally, and letting the girl nurse herself with hopes of what must not be.<<
>> But Bertram, dear Bertram,<< replied old Anne, >>why not? could not our Kate live as happily with the bailiffs clerk as with the hunter Robert? Ah, you don't know what a fine lad William is; so good, so kind-hearted -<<
>> May be, like enough, << interrupted Bertram; >>kind-hearted I dare say, but no hunter for all that. Now, look here, Anne: for better than two hundred years has this farm in the Forest of Linden come down from father to child in my family. Had'st thou brought me a son, well and good: the farm would have gone to him; and the lass might have married whom she would. But, as the case stands, - no, I say. What the devil! have I had all this trouble and vexation of mind to get the duke's allowance for my son-in-law to stand his examination as soon as he is master of the huntsman's business; and just when all's settled, must I go and throw the girl away? A likely thing, indeed! No, no, mistress Anne, it's no use talking. It's not altogether Robert that I care about. I don't stand upon trifles; and, if the man is not to your taste or the girl's, why, look out any other active huntsman that may take my office betimes, and give us a comfortable fireside in our old age. Robert or not Robert, so that it be a lad of the forest, I'll never stand upon trifles: but for the clerk - dost hear, Anne? - this hero of a crow-quill, never hang about my neck or think to wheedle me again.<<
For the clerk's sake old Anne would have ventured to wheedle her husband a little longer: but the forester, who knew by experience the pernicious efficacy of female eloquence, was resolved not to expose his own firmness of purpose to any further assaults or trials; and, taking down his gun from the wall, he walked out into the forest.
Scarcely had he turned the corner of the house, when a rosy light-haired face looked in at the door. It was Katharine: smiling and blushing, she stopped for a moment in agitation, and said:- >> Is all right, mother? was it yes, dear mother? << Then, bounding into the room, she fell on her mother's neck for an answer.
>>Ah Kate, be not too confident when thou should'st be prepared for the worst: thy father is a good man, as good as ever stepped, but he has his fancies; and he is resolved to give thee to none but a hunter; he has set his heart upon it; and he'll not go from his word; I know him too well.<<
Katharine wept, and avowed her determination to dine sooner than to part from her William. Her mother comforted and scolded her by turns, and at length ended by joining her tears to her daughter's. She was promising to make one more assault of a most vigorous kind upon the old forester's heart, when a knock was heard at the door - and in stepped William. >>Ah William!<< - exclaimed Katharine, going up to him with streaming eyes,- >> we must part: seek some other sweet-heart: me you must never marry; father is resolved to give me to Robert, because he is a huntsman; and my mother can do nothing for us. But, if I am to part from you, never think that I will belong to anybody else: to my dying hour, dear
>> Upon my soul, but this William's a fine fellow! << exclaimed the forester as he returned home with his comrade from the chase: >> Who the deuce would ever have looked for such a good shot in the flourisher of a crow-quill? Well; to-morrow I shall speak with the bailiff myself; for it would be a sad pity if he were not to pursue the noble profession of hunting. Why, he'll make a second Kuno. You know who Kuno was, I suppose? << said he, turning to William.
William acknowledged that he did not. >> Not know who Kuno was? bless my soul! to think that I should never have told you that. Why, Kuno, you're to understand, was my great grand-father's father; and was the very first man that ever occupied and cultivated this farm. He began the world no better, I'll assure you, than a poor riding boy; and lived servant with the young knight of Wippach. Ah! the knight liked him well, and took him to all places, battles, tournaments, hunts, and what not. Well, once upon a time it happened that this young gentleman of Wippach was present with many other knights and nobles at a great hunt held by the duke. And in this hunt the dogs turned up a stag, upon which a man was seated wringing his hands and crying piteously; for, in those days, there was a tyrannical custom among the great lords, that, when a poor man had committed any slight matter of trespass against the forest laws, they would take and bind him on the back of a stag, so that he was bruised and gored to death by the herd - or if he escaped dying that way, he perished of hunger and thirst. Well, when the duke saw this - oh lord! but he was angry; and gave command to stop the hunting; and there and then he promised a high reward to any man that would undertake to hit the stag - but threatened him with his severest displeasure in case he wounded the man; for he was resolved, if possible, to take him alive - that he might learn who it was that had been bold enough to break his law, which forbade all such murderous deeds. Now, amongst all the nobility, not a man could be found that would undertake the job on these terms. They liked the reward, mind you, but not the risk. So, at last, who should step forward but Kuno, my own great grand father's father - the very man that you see painted in that picture. He spoke up boldly before the duke, and said: - >> My noble liege, if it is your pleasure, with God's blessing, I will run the hazard; if I miss, my life is at your grace's disposal, and must pay the forfeit; for riches and worldly goods I have none to ransom it; but I pity the poor man; and, without fee or reward, I would have exposed my life to the same hazard if I had seen him in the hands of enemies or robbers. << This speech pleased the duke; it pleased him right well: and he bade Kuno try his luck; and again he promised him the reward in case he hit; but he did not repeat his threat in case he missed; that was, mind you, lest he should frighten him and make his hand unsteady. Well, Kuno took his gun, cocked it in God's name, and, commending the ball with a pious prayer to the guidance of good angels, he spent no time in taking aim - but fired with a cheerful faith right into the midst of a thicket; in the same moment out rushed the hart, staggered, and fell; but the man was unwounded, except that his hands and face were somewhat scratched by the bushes.
>> The noble duke kept his word, and gave Kuno, for his reward, the farm of the forest to himself and his heirs for ever. But, lord bless us! good fortune never wanted envy; and the favour of Providence, as Kuno soon learned, is followed by the jealousy of man. Many a man there was, in those days, who would gladly have had Kuno's reward; one man for himself, perhaps; another for some poor cousin or so, or maybe something nearer of kin, but come of the wrong side the blanket: and what did they do but they persuaded the duke that Kuno's shot had hit the mark through witchcraft and black arts: >> For why? << said they, >> Kuno never took any aim at all, but fired at random >>a devil's shot; << and a devil's shot, you're to understand, never fails of hitting the mark; for needs must that the devil drives. << So here upon a regulation was made, and from this the custom came, that every descendant of Kuno must undergo a trial, and fire what they call his probationary shot before he is admitted tenant. However, the master of the hounds, before whom the trial takes place, can make it easy or difficult at his own pleasure. When I was admitted, guess what the master required of me: why, from the bill of a wooden bird to shoot out a ring that fastened the bird to a pole. Well, well: up to this time not one of all Kuno's descendants has failed in his trial: and he that would be my son-in-law and a worthy successor to me - let me tell you, William, that man had need to make himself a thorough huntsman.<<
William, who had listened to this story with lively interest (as the old forester had not failed to remark with much satisfaction), rose from his seat when it was ended, pressed the old man's hand, and promised, under his tuition, to make himself a huntsman such as even old father Kuno should have had no cause to blush for.
William had scarcely lived one whole fortnight at the forest house in his capacity of huntsman, when old Bertram, who liked him better every day, gave a formal consent to his marriage with Katharine. This promise, however, was to be kept secret until the day of the probationary shot, when the presence of the ducal master of the hounds would confer a splendour on the ceremony of the betrothing which was flattering to the old man's pride. Meantime the bridegroom - elect passed his time in rapturous elevation of spirits, and forgot himself and all the world in the paradise of youthful love; so that father Bertram often said to him tauntingly, that from the day when he had hit his prime aim in obtaining Katharine's heart he had hit nothing else. The fact, however, was, that from that very day William had met with an unaccountable run of ill-luck in hunting. Sometimes his gun would miss fire; at other times, instead of a deer, he would hit the trunk of a tree. Was his hunting-bag emptied on his return home? Instead of partridges out came daws and crows, and, instead of a hare, perhaps a dead cat. At last the forester began to reproach him in good earnest for his headlessness; and Kate herself became anxious for the event of his examination before the duke's commissioner.
William redoubled his attention and diligence; but the nearer the day of trial advanced, so much the more was he persecuted by bad luck. Nearly every shot missed; and at length he grew almost afraid of pulling a trigger for fear of doing some mischief; for he had already shot a cow at pasture, and narrowly escaped wounding the herdsman.
>> Nay, I stick to my own opinion,<< said huntsman Rudolph one night, >> somebody has cast a spell over William; for, in the regular course of nature such things could never happen; and this spell he must undo before ever he'll have any luck.<<
>> Pooh! pooh! man, what stuff you talk! << replied Bertram. >> This is nothing but superstitious foolery, such as no Christian hunter should ever so much as name. Can'st tell me now, my fine fellow, what three articles be those which make an able sportsman's stock in trade? <<
>> Aye, my old cock of the woods, I can tell you that, << said Rudolph clearing his throat, >> or else it were a pity:
>> A dog, a gun, and a skilful hand, In the forest are better than house or land.,<<
>> Good, << said Bertram, >> and these three together are an overmatch for all the spells in Germany. <<
>> With your leave, father Bertram,<< replied William, somewhat chagrined, >> here is my gun; and I should be glad to see the man that has any fault to find with that: as to my skill, I will not boast of it; yet I think it can't be denied that I do as well as others; nevertheless, so it is, that my balls seem to fly askance, as if the wind turned them out of their course. Do but tell me what it is that I should do, and there is nothing I will not try.<< >> Strange, indeed! << murmured the forester, who knew not what to say.
>> Take my word for it, William,<< repeated Rudolph, >> it is just what I tell you. Go some Friday at midnight to a cross-road, and make a circle round about you with a ram-rod or a bloody sword; bless it three times in the same words as the priest uses, but in the name of Samiel<<
>> Hush! hush!<< interrupted the forester angrily: >> dost know what that name is? why, he's one of Satan's host. God keep thee and all Christians out of his power! <<
William crossed himself and would hear no more, however obstinately Rudolph persisted in his opinion. All night long he continued to clean his gun, to examine the screws, the spring, and every part of the lock and barrel; and at break of day he sallied forth to try his luck once more.
But all in vain; his paine were all thrown away; the deer flocked round him almost as it seemed in mockery of his skill. At ten paces distance he levelled at a roe-buck; twice his gun flashed in the pan; the third time it went off, but the deer darted off unhurt through the bushes. Cursing his fate, the unhappy hunter threw himself despondingly beneath a tree; at that moment a rustling was heard in the bushes, and out limped an old soldier with a wooden leg.
>> Good morning to you, comrade,<< said the soldier; >> Why so gloomy, why so gloomy? Is it body or purse that's ailing, health or wealth is it that your sighing for? Or has somebody put a charm upon your gun? Come, give us a bit of tobacco, and let's have a little chat together. <<
With a surly air William gave him what he asked for, and the soldier threw himself by his side on the grass. After some desultory discussion, the conversation fell upon hunting, and William related his own bad luck. >> Let me see your gun, << said the soldier. >> Ah! I thought so. This gun has been charmed, and you'll never get a true aim with it again; and more than that, let me tell you, if the charm was laid according to the rules of art, you'll have no better luck with any other gun you take in hand.<<
William shuddered, and would have urged some objection against the credibility of witchcraft; but the stranger offered to bring the question to a simple test. >>To old soldiers, the like of me, << said he, >> there's nothing at all surprising in it. Bless your soul, I could tell you stories stranger by half from this time to midnight. How do you think the sharp-shooters would come on, that must venture here, there, and everywhere, and must pick off their man from the very heart of the thickest smoke where it's clear impossible to see him - how must they come on, I would be glad to know, if they understood no other trick than just aim and fire? Now here, for instance, is a ball that cannot fail to go true, because it's a gifted ball, and is proof against all the arts of darkness. Just try it now; give it a single trial; I'll answer for it, you'll not find it deceive you, I'll go bail for it. <<
William loaded his piece, and looked about for an aim. At a great height above the forest, like a moving speck, was hovering a large bird of prey. >>There! << said wooden-leg, >> that old devil up there, shoot him.<< William laughed, for the bird was floating in a region so elevated as to be scarcely discernible to the naked eye. >> Nay, never doubt; shoot away, << repeated the old soldier; >> I'll wager my wooden leg you'll bring him down.<< William fired, the black speck was seen rapidly enlarging, and a great vulture fell bleeding to the ground.
>>Oh! bless your heart, that's nothing at all,<< said the soldier, observing the speechless astonishment of his companion; >> not worth speaking of. Indeed it's no such great matter to learn how to cast balls as good as these; little more is wanted than some slight matter of skill, and, to be sure, a stout heart; for why' the work must be done in the night. I'll teach you, and welcome, if we should chance to meet again; at present, however, I must be moving, for I've a d - d long march before me to-day, and I hear it just striking seven, Meantime, here's a few braces of my balls for you, << and so saying he limped off.
Filled with astonishment, William tried a second of the balls, and again he hit an object at an inaccessible distance; he then charged with his ordinary balls, and missed the broadest and most obvious mark. On this second trial, he determined to go after the old soldier; but the soldier had disappeared in the depths of the forest, and William was obliged to console himself with the prospect of meeting him again.
In the forest house all was joy and triumph when William returned, as formerly, with a load of venison, and gave practical evidence to old Bertram that he was still the same marksman he had first shown himself in his noviciate. He should now have told the reason of his late ill-luck, and what course he had taken to remove it; but, without exactly knowing why, he shrank from telling of the inevitable balls, and laid the blame upon a flaw in his gun, which had escaped his notice until the preceding night.
>> Now, dame, dost a' see? << said the forester laughing; >> who's wrong now, dame, I wonder? The witchcraft lay in the gun that wanted trimming; and the little devil, that by your account should have thrown down old father Kuno's picture so early this morning, I'm partly of opinion lies in a cankered nail. <<
>> What's that you're saying about a devil"<< asked William.
>> Nay, nothing at all but nonsense,<< replied the old man; >> this morning, just as the clock was striking seven, the picture fell down of itself, and so my wife will have it that all's not right about the house.<<
>> Just as it was striking Seven, eh? Ha! << And across William's thoughts flashed like a fiery arrow the old soldier, who had taken his leave at that identical time.
>>Aye, sure enough, as it was striking seven: not a very likely time for devils to be strirring; eh, my old dame? Eh, Anne? << at the same time chucking her under the chin with a good-natured laugh. But old Anne shook her head thoughtfully, saying >> God grant all may turn out natural! << and William changed colour a little. He resolved to put by his balls, and, at the most, only to use one upon his day of trial, lest he might be unconsciously trifling away his future happiness at the wily suggestions of a fiend. But the forester summoned him to attendance upon the chase; and, unless he were prepared to provoke the old man, and to rouse afresh all the late suspicions in regard to his skill, he found himself obliged to throw away some of his charmed balls upon such occasions.
In a few days William had so familiarised himself to the use of his enchanted balls, that he no longer regarded it with an
misgiving. Every day he roamed about in the forest, hoping to meet the wooden-leg again; for his stock of balls had sunk to a single pair, and the most rigorous parsimony became needful, if lie would riot put to hazard his final success on the day of trial. One day, therefore, he positively declined attending the old forester a hunting, for, on the next, the duke's commissioner was expected, and it might so happen that, before the regular probation, he would call for some exhibition of his skill. At night, however, instead of the commissioner, came a messenger from him to he speak a very large delivery of game for court, and to countermand the preparations for his own reception until that day se'nnight.
On the receipt of this news William was ready to sink to the ground; and his alarm would certainly have raised suspicions had it not been ascribed to the delay of his marriage. He was now under the necessity of going out to hunt, and of sacrificing at least one of his balls; with the other he vowed to himself that lie would not part for any purpose on earth, except for the final shot before the commissioner which was to decide his fate for life.
Bertram scolded when William came back from the forest with only a single buck: for the quantity of venision ordered was very considerable. Next day he was still more provoked on seeing Rudolph return loaded with game and William with an empty bag. At night he threatened to dismiss him from his house, and to revoke the consent he had given to his marriage with Katharine, unless he brought home at least two roe-deer on the following morning. Katharine herself was in the greatest distress, and conjured him for love of her to apply his utmost zeal, and not to think so much about her whilst engaged in hunting.
In a despairing mood William set off to the forest. Kate, in any case, he looked upon as lost; and all that remained for him was a sad alternative between the two modes of losing her, whether by the result of this day's hunting, or of the trial before the commissioner. This was an alternative on which he felt himself incapable of deciding; and he was standing lost in gloomy contemplation of his wretched fate, when all at once a troop of deer advanced close upon him. Mechanically he felt for his last ball; it seemed to weigh a hundredweight in his hands. Already he had resolved to reserve this treasure at any price, when suddenly he saw the old wooden-leg at a distance, and apparently
directing Ills steps towards himself. Joyfully he dropped his ball into the barrel, fired, and two roebucks fell to the ground. William left them lying, and hurried after the wooden-leg; but he must have struck into some other path, for he had wholly disappeared.
Father Bertram was well satisfied with William; but not so was William with himself. The whole day long he went about in gloomy despondency; and even the tenderness and caresses of' Kate had no power to restore him to serenity. At nightfall he was still buried in abstraction; and, seated in a chair, he hardly noticed the lively conversation between the forester and Rudolph, till at length the former woke him out of his reverie.
>> What, William, I say, << cried Bertram, >> sure you'll never sit by and hearken quietly whilst such scandalous things are said as Rudolph has just been saying of our forefather Kuno? I'm sure, I won't. If good angels stood by, and gave help to him and to the poor innocent man on the stag's back, why nothing but right: we read of such cases in the Old Testament; and let us thank God for that and all his mercies and marvels: but as to black arts and devil's shots, I'll not sit and hear such things said of our Kuno. What, man? Kuno died in his bed quietly, and with a Christian's peace, amongst his children and children's children but the man that tampers with the powers of darkness never makes a good end. I know that by what I saw myself at Prague in Bohemia, when I was an apprentice lad. <<
>> Aye! what was that?<< cried Rudolph and the rest: tell us, dear father.<<
>> What was it? why, bad enough,<< said Bertram; >> it makes me shudder when I think of it. There was at that time a young man in Prague, one George Smith by name, a wild, daring sort of a fellow,- not but he was a fine, active lad in his way, that was terribly fond of hunting, and would often come and join us; indeed, I may say, whenever he could. And a very fair hunter he might have proved; but he was too hasty by far, and flung his shots away in a manner. One day, when we had been joking him on this, his pride mounted so high, that nothing would serve him but he must defy all the hunters in a body: he would beat any of them at shooting; and no game should escape him, whether in the air or in the forest. This was his boast; but ill he kept his word. Two days after comes a strange huntsman bolt upon us out of a thicket, and tells us that a little way off, on the main road, a man was lying half dead, and with nobody to look after him. We lads made up to the spot, and there, sure enough, lay poor George, torn and clawed all to pieces, just as if he had fallen amongst wild-cats: not a word could he speak; for he was quite senseless, and hardly showed any signs of life. We carried him to a house: one of us set off with the news to Prague; and thither he was soon fetched. Well, this George Smith, before he died, made confession that he had set about casting devil's balls with an old upland hunter. Devil's balls, you understand, never miss; and because he failed in something that he should have done, the devil had handled him so roughly, that what must pay for it but his precious life?<<
>> What was it, then, that he failed in?<< asked William falteringly. >> Is it always the devil that is at work in such dealings?<<
>> Why, who should it be?<< rejoined the forester, >> the devil, to be sure, who else? Some people I've heard talk of hidden powers of nature, and of the virtue of the stars. I know not: every man's free to think what he likes; but it's my opinion, and I stick to it, that it's all the devil's handicraft.<<
William drew his breath more freely. >>But did George not relate what it was that brought such rough treatment upon him? <<
>>Aye, sure enough, before the magistrates he confessed all. As it drew towards midnight, it seems, he had gone with the old hunter to a cross-road: there they made a circle with a bloody sword; and in this circle they laid a skull and bones crossways. Then the old man told George what he was to do. On the stroke of eleven, he was to begin casting the balls, in number sixty-and -three, neither more nor less: one over or one under, as soon as twelve o'clock struck, he was a lost man. And during all this work he was not to speak a word, nor to step out of the circle, let what would happen. Sixty of the balls were to carry true, and only three were to miss. Well, sure enough, Smith began casting the balls; but such shocking and hideous apparitions flocked about him, that at last he shrieked out, and jumped right out of the circle. Instantly he fell down senseless to the ground; and never recovered his recollection till he found himself at Prague, as if waking out of a dream, in the hands of the surgeon, and with a clergyman by his side.<<
>> God preserve all Christian people from such snares of Satan!<< said the forester's wife, crossing herself.
>> Had George, then,<< asked Rudolph, >> made a regular contract with the devil?<<
>> Why, that's more than I'll undertake to say,<< replied Bertram; for it is written, 'Judge not.' But, let that he as it will, it can be no slight matter of a sin for a man to meddle with things that bring the Evil One about him; and may, for aught he knows, give him power over body and soul. Satan is ready enough to come of himself, without any man's needing to summon him, or to make bargains with him. Besides, what need of any such help for a good Christian hunter? You know that, William, by your own experience: with a good gun and a skilful hand, the hunter wants no devil's balls, but hits just where he should hit. For my part, if I had such balls, I wouldn't fire them for any money; for the fiend is a wily devil, and might upon occasion give the ball a slytwist in its course, to serve his purposes instead of mine.<<
The forester went to bed, and left William in the most wretched state of agitation. In vain he threw himself on his bed; sound sleep fled from his eyes. The delirium of a heated fancy presented to his eyes, by turns, in confused groups, the old wooden-legged soldier, George, Katharine, and the ducal commissioner. Now the unfortunate boy of Prague held up his hand before him, as a bloody memento of warning: then in a moment his threatening aspect would change into the face of Kate, fainting and pale as death; and near her stood the wooden-leg, his countenance overspread with a fiendish laugh of mockery. At another time he was standing before the commissioner in the act of firing his probationary shot; he levelled, took aim, fired, and - missed. Katharine fainted away, her father rejected him for ever; then came the wooden-leg, and presented him with fresh balls; but too late - no second trial was allowed him.
So passed the night with William. At the earliest dawn he went into the forest, and bent his steps, not altogether without design, to the spot where he had met the old soldier. The fresh breezy air of the morning had chased away from his mind the gloomy phantoms of the night. >> Fool!<< said he to himself, >> because a mystery is above thy comprehension, must it therefore be from hell? And what is there so much out of the course of nature in that which I am seeking, that supernatural powers need come to help me? Man controls the mighty powers of the brute into obedience to his will; why should he not, by the same natural arts, impress motion and direction upon the course of a bit of lifeless inert metal? Nature teems with operations which we do not comprehend: and am I to trifle away my happiness for a superannuated prejudice? I will call up no spiritual beings, but I will summon and make use of the occult powers of nature, never troubling myself whether I can decipher her mysteries or not. I will go in quest of the old soldier; and, if I should not find him, I will take care to keep up my courage better than that same George of Prague; he was urged on by pride; but I by the voice of love and honour.<<
In this manner did William discuss his own intentions: but the old soldier was nowhere to be found. Nobody, of whom he inquired, had seen any such man as he described. The next day was spent in the same search, and with no better success.
>> So be it, then! << said William internally: >>the days that remain for my purpose are numbered. This very night I will go to the cross-road in the forest. It is a lonely spot; nobody will be there to witness my nocturnal labours: and I'll take care not to quit the circle till my work is done. <<
Twilight had set in; and William had provided himself with lead, bullet-mould, coals, and all other requisites, that he might be ready to slip out of the house unobserved immediately after supper. He was just on the point of departing, and bad already wished the forester a good night, when the latter stopped him, and took his hand.
>>William,<< said he, >> I know not what is to come to me, but so it is, that this evening I have an awe upon my mind, as if from some danger, God knows what, hanging over me. Oblige me by staying this night with me. Don't look so cast down, my lad; its only to guard against possibilities. <<
Katherine immediately offered her services to sit up with her father, and was unwilling to intrust the care of him to anybody else, even to her own William; but father Bertram declined her offer. >> Another time,<< said he, >> another time; to-night I feel as if I should be easier if I had William with me.<<
William was disposed at first to excuse himself: but Kate commended her father so earnestly to his care, that her requests were not to be resisted; and he staid with a good grace, and put off the execution of his plan until the succeeding night. After midnight the old forester became tranquil, and slept soundly, so that, on the following morning, he laughed at his own fears. He would have gone with William into the forest; but William still clung to the hope of meeting his mysterious acquaintance with the wooden leg, and therefore opposed his wishes with a plausible pretext about his health. The wooden-leg however, never appeared; and William, a second time resolved on the nocturnal expedition to the cross road.
At night, when he came back from the forest, Katharine ran out joyfully to meet him. >>Guess, William, only guess, << she cried, >>who it is that is come. There is a visitor for you, a right dear visitor; but I will not say who, for you must guess. <<
William had no mind for guessing, and still less for seeing visitors. On this day, the dearest in the world would have seemed in his eyes a troublesome intruder. He shrank gloomily from Katharine's welcome, and thought of turning back upon some pretence; but at that moment the house door opened, and the light of the moon discovered a venerable old man in a hunter's dress, who stepped forwards and stretched out his arms to William.
>>William! << exclaimed a well-known voice, and William found himself in the arms of his uncle. A world of affecting remembrances, from the days of childhood remembrances of love, of joy, and of gratitude, pressed with the weight of magic upon William's heart: amidst these his midnight purpose slipped away from his thoughts; and it was in the middle of the gayest conversation, upon the clock striking twelve, that William was first reminded with horror of the business he had neglected.
>>Just one night more, << thought he, >> one single night remains: to-morrow, or never! << His violent agitation did not escape his uncle's notice: but the old man ascribed it to some little wearness in his nephew and good-naturedly apologised for having engaged him so long in conversation, by pleading his early departure, which he could not possibly put off beyond the first dawn of the next morning.
>> Think not much of an odd hour or two thrown away,<< said he to William on separating; >>may be you'll sleep all the better for it.<<
These last words had a deeper import to William's thoughts than could possibly have been meant by his uncle. He saw in them an obscure allusion to his nocturnal plans, which, once executed, might (as he forboded) chase away from him for ever the comfort of tranquil slumbers.
The third night came. Whatever was to be done, must be done on this day, for the next was the day of trial. From morning to night had old Anne, with her daughter Kate, bustled about the house, to make arrangements for the suitable reception of her dignified guest, the commissioner. At nightfall everything was ready, and in the most becoming order. Anne embraced William on his return from the forest, and for the first time saluted him with the endearing name of son. The eyes of Kate sparkled with the tender emotions of a youthful bride that loves, and is beloved. The table was decked with festal flowers, and such as rural usage has appropriated, by way of emblems, to the occasion: viands more luxurious than usual were brought out by the mother; and bottles of choice old wine by the father.
>> This night,<< said Bertram, >> we will keep the bridal feast: to-morrow we shall not be alone, and cannot, therefore, sit so confidentially and affectionately together; let us be happy then - as happy as if all the pleasure of our lives were to be crowded into this one night.<<
The forester embraced his family, and was deeply moved. >> But, Bertram, << said his wife, >> let us be as happy as we will to-night, I've a notion the young people will be happier to-morrow. Do you know what I mean?<<
>>Yes, love, I know what you mean; and let the children know it also, that they may enjoy their happiness beforehand. Do you hear, children? The vicar is invited to-morrow and as soon as William has passed his examination << -
At this moment a rattling noise and a loud cry from Katharine interrupted the forester's speech. Kuno's portrait had again fallen from the wall, and a corner of the frame had wounded Katharine on the temples. The nail appeared to have been fixed too loosely in the wall, for it fell after the picture and brought away part of the plaster. >> What, in God's name, can be the reason,<< said Bertram with vexation, >> that this picture can't be made, to hang as it should do? This now is the second time that it has alarmed us. Katy, my love, art any worse?<< >>No, not all all,<< said she, cheerfully, and wiping the blood from her tresses, >> but I was sadly frightened.<<
William was thrown into dreadful agitation when he beheld the death-pale countenance of Kate, and the blood upon her temples. Just so had she appeared to him on the night of his hideous visions; and all the sad images of that memorable night now revived upon his mind, and tormented him afresh. The violent shock tended greatly to stagger him in his plans for the night; but the wine, which he drank in large draughts, and more hastily than usual, for the purpose of hiding his anguish, filled him with a frantic sprit of hardihood: he resolved afresh to make the attempt boldly; and no longer saw anything in his purpose but the honourable spectacle of love and courage struggling with danger.
The clock struck nine. William's heart beat violently. He sought for some pretext for withdrawing, but in vain. What pretext could a man find for quitting his young bride on their bridal festival? Time flew faster than an arrow: in the arms of love, that should have crowned him with happiness, he suffered the pangs of martyrdom. Ten o'clock was now past, and the decisive moment was at hand. Without taking leave, William stole away from the side of his bride; already he was outside the house with his implements of labour, when old Anne came after him. >> Whither away, William, at this time of night?<< asked she anxiously. >> I shot a deer, and forgot it in my hurry.<< was the answer. In vain she begged him to stay: all her entreaties were flung a away and even the tender caresses of Kate, whose mind misgave her that some mystery lay buried in his hurry and agitation. William tore himself from them both, and hastened to the forest.
The moon was in the wane, and at this time was rising, and resting with a dim red orb upon the horizon. Gloomy clouds were flying overhead, and at intervals darkened the whole country, which, by fits, the moon again lit up. The silvery birches and the aspen trees rose like apparitions in the forest; and the poplars seemed, to William's fevered visions pale shadowy forms that beckoned him to retire. He shuddered; and it suddenly struck him, that the almost miraculous disturbance of his scheme on the two preceding nights together with the repeated and ominous falling of the picture, were the last warnings of dissuasion from a wicked enterprise addressed to him by his better angel that was now ready to forsake him.
Once again he faltered in his purpose. Already he was on the point of returning, when suddenly a voice appeared to whisper to him: >> Fool! hast thou not already accepted magical help; is it only for the trouble of reaping it that thou would'st forego the main harvest of its gifts"<< He stood still. The moon issued in splendous from behind a dark cloud, and illuminated the peaceful roof of the forester's cottage. He could see Katharine's chamber window glancing under the silvery rays; in the blindness of love, he stretched out his arms towards it, and mechanically stepped homewards. Then came a second whisper from the voice; for a sudden gust of wind brought the sound of the clock striking the half hour: >> Away to business!<< it seemed to say. >> Right, right!<< He said aloud.<< Away to business! It is weak and childish to turn back from a business half accomplished, it is folly to renounce the main advantage, having already, perhaps, risked one's salvation for a trifle. No: let me go through with it.<<
He stepped forwards with long strides; the wind drove the agitated clouds again over the face of the moon; and William plunged into the thickest gloom of the forest.
At length he stood upon the cross way. At length the magic circle was drawn; the skulls were fixed; and the bones were laid round about. The moon buried herself deeper and deeper in the clouds; and no light was shed upon the midnight deed, except from the red lurid gleam of the fire, that waxed and waned by fits, under the gusty squalls of the wind. A remote church clock proclaimed that it was now within a quarter of eleven.
William put the ladle upon the fire, and threw in the lead together with three bullets which had already hit the mark once: a practice, amongst those who cast the >> fatal bullets, << which he remembered to have heard mentioned in his apprenticeship. In the forest was now heard a pattering of rain. At intervals came flitting motions of owles, bats, and other light-shunning creatures, seared by the sudden gleams of the fire: some, dropping from the surrounding boughs, placed themselves on the magic circle, where, by their low, dull croaking, they seemed holding dialogues, in some unknown tongue, with the dead men's skulls. Their numbers increased; and amongst them were indistinct outlines of misty forms, that went and came, some with brutal, some with human faces. Their vapoury lineaments fluctuated and obeyed the motions of the wind; one only stood unchanged, and, like a shadow, near to the circle, and settled the sad light of its eyes steadfastly upon William. Sometimes it would raise its pale hands, and seem to sigh: and when it raised its hands, the fire would burn more sullenly; but a gray owl would then fan with his wings, and rekindle the decaying embers. William averted his eyes: for the countenance of his buried mother seemed to look out from the cloudy figure, with piteous expressions of unutterable anguish. Suddenly it struck eleven; and then the shadow vanished with the action of one who prays and breathes up sighs to heaven. The owles and the night-ravens flitted croaking about; and the skulls and bones rattled beneath their wings.
William kneeled down on his coaly hearth and with the last stroke of eleven, out fell the first bullet.
The owls and the bones were now silent; but along the road came an old crooked beldame pell-mell against the magic circle. She was hung round with wooden spoons, ladles, and other kitchen utensils, and made a hideous rattling as she moved. The owles saluted her with hooting, and fanned her with their wings. On reaching the circle, she bowed to the bones and skulls; but the coals shot forth lambent tongues of flame against her, and she drew back her withered hands. Then she paced round the circle, and with a grin presented her wares to William. >>Give me the bones,<< said she, in a harsh guttural tone, >> and I'll give thee some spoons. Give the skulls to me, love; what's the trumpery to thee, love? << and then she chaunted, with a scornful air -
>> There's nothing can help: 'tis an hour too late;
Nothing can step betwixt thee and thy fate.
Shoot in the light, or shoot in the dark,
Thy bullets be sure, shall go true to the mark
"Shoot the dove", says the word of command:
And the forester bold, with the matchless hand,
Levels and fires: Oh! marksman good!
The dove lies bathed in her innocent blood'
Here's to the man that shoots the dove!
Come for the prize to me, my love! <<
William was aghast with horror; but he remained quiet within the circle, and pursued his labours. The old woman was one whom he well knew. A crazy old female beggar had formerly roamed about the neighbourhood in this attire, till at last she was lodged in a mad-house. He was at a loss to discover whether the object now before him were the reality or an illusion. After some little pause, the old crone scattered her lumber to the right and left with an angry air, and then tottered slowly away into the gloomy depths of the forest, singing those words:
>>This to the left, and that to the right;
This arid that for the bridal night.
Marksman fine, be sure and steady;
The bride she is dressed - the priest he is ready.
To-morrow, to-morrow, when day-light departs,
And twilight is spread over broken hearts;
When the fight is fought, when the race is run,
When the strife, arid the anguish are over and done
When the bride-bed is decked with a winding-sheet.
And the innocent dove has died at thy feet
Then comes a bridegroom for me, I trow,
That shall live with me in my house of woe.
Here's to him that, shoots the dove!
Come for the prize to me, my love!<<
Now came all at once a rattling as of wheels and the cracking of postilions' whips. A carriage and six drove up with outriders. What the devil's this that stops the way?<< cried the man who rode the leaders. >> Make way there. I say - clear the road.<< William looked up and saw sparks of fire darting from the horses' hoofs, and a circle of flame about the carriage wheels. By this he knew it to be a work of the fiend, and never stirred. >>Push on, my lads - drive over him helter-skelter cried the same postilion, looking back to the others; and in a moment the whole equipage moved rapidly upon the circle William cowered down to the ground, beneath the dash of the leaders' fore-legs; but the airy train and the carriage soared into the air with a whistling sound, round and round the circle, and vanished in a hurricane which moved not a leaf of the trees. Some time elapsed before William recovered from his consternation. However, he compelled his trembling hands to keep firm. and cast a few bullets. At that moment a well-known church clock at a distance began to strike. At first the sound was a sound of comfort, connecting, as with the tones of some friendly voice, the human world with the dismal circle in which he stood. that else seemed cut off from it as by an impassable gulph; but the clock struck twice, thrice - here he shuddered at the rapid flight of time, for his work was not a third part advanced - then it struck a fourth time. He was appalled; every limb seemed palsied; and the mould slipped out of his nerveless hand. With the calmness of despair he listened to the clock until it completed the full hour of twelve; the knell then vibrated on the air, lingered, and died away. To sport with the solemn hour of midnight appeared too bold an undertaking even for the powers of darkness. However, he drew out his watch, looked, and behold! it was no more than half-past eleven.
Recovering his courage, and now fully steeled against all fresh illusions, be resumed his labours with energy. Profound quiet was all around him, disturbed only at intervals by the owls that made a low muttering, and now and then rattled the skulls and bones together. All at once a crashing was heard in the bushes. The sound was familiar to the experienced hunter's ears; he looked round, and, as he expected, a wild boar sprang out and rushed up to the circle. >>This,<< thought William, >> is no deception;<< and he leaped up, seized his gun, and snapped it hastily at the wild beast; but no spark issued from the flint; he drew his hanger, but the bristly monster, like the carriage and horses, soared far above him into the air, and vanished.
William, thus repeatedly baffled, now hastened to fetch up the lost time. Sixty bullets were already cast: he looked up; suddenly the clouds opened, and the moon again threw a brilliant light over the whole country. Just then a voice was heard from the depths of the forest crying out, in great agitation, >>William! William! << It was the voice of Kate. William saw her issue from the bushes, and fearfully look round her. Behind her panted the old woman, stretching her withered spidery arms after the flying girl, and endeavouring to catch hold of her floating garments. Katharine now collected the last remains of her exhausted strength for flight; at that moment the old wooden-leg stepped across her path; for an instant it checked her speed, and then the old hag caught her with her bony hands. William could contain himself no longer: he threw the mould with the last bullet out of his hands, and would have leaped out of the circle: but just then the clock struck twelve; the fiendish vision had vanished; the owls threw the skulls and bones confusedly to- and flew away; the fire went out, and William sank exhausted to the ground.
Now came up slowly a horseman upon a black horse. He stopped at the effaced outline of the magic circle, and spoke thus: Thou hast stood the trial well; what would'st thou have of me? <<
>> Nothing of thee, nothing at all,<< said William: >>what I want - I have prepared for myself. <<
>> Aye; but with my help: therefore part belongs to me. <<
>> By no means, by no means: I bargained for no help, I summoned thee not. <<
The horseman laughed scornfully. >>Thou art bolder,<< said he, >> than such as thou are went to be. Take the balls which thou hast cast: sixty for thee, three for me; the sixty go true, the three go askew; all will be plain, when we meet again. <<
William averted his face: >> I will never meet thee again,<< said he - >> leave me.<<
>> Why turnest thou away?<< said the stranger with a dreadful laugh; >> do'st know me?<<
>> No, no<< - said William, shuddering: I know thee not! I wish not to know thee. Be thou who thou mayest, leave me!<<
The black horseman turned away his horse, and said, with a gloomy solemnity - >> Thou do'st know me: the very hair of thy head, which stands on end, confesses for thee that thou do'st. I am he - whom at this moment thou namest in thy heart with horror.<< So saying, he vanished, followed by the dreary sound of withered leaves, and by the echo of blasted boughs falling from the trees beneath which he had stood.
>> Merciful God! what has happened to you, William?<< exclaimed Kate and her mother, as William returned, pale and agitated, after midnight: >>you look as if fresh risen from the grave.<<
>> Nothing nothing,<< said William, >>nothing but night air; the truth is, I am a little feverish.<<
>>William, William!<< said old Bertram, stepping up to him, >>you can't deceive me; something has met you in the forest. Why would you not stop at home? Something has crossed you on the road, I'll swear.<<
William was struck with the old man's seriousness, and replied >>Well, yes; I acknowledge something has crossed me. But wait for nine days, before then, you know yourself that <<
>> Gladly, gladly, my son,<< said Bertram; >>and God be praised, that it is any thing of that kind which can wait for nine days. Trouble him not, wife; Kate, leave him at peace! - Beshrew me, but I had nearly done thee wrong, William, in my thoughts. Now, my good lad, go to bed, and rest thyself. 'Night,' says the proverb, 'is no man's friend.' But be of good cheer; the man that is in his vocation, and walks only in lawful paths, may bid defiance to the fiends of darkness and all their works.<<
William needed his utmost powers of dissimulation to disguise from the old man's penetration how little his suspicions had done him injustice. This indulgent affection of father Bertram, and such unshaken confidence in his uprightness, wrung his heart. He hurried to his bedroom, with full determination to destroy the accursed bullets. >>One only will I keep, only one I will use,<< said he, holding out his supplicating hands pressed palm to palm, with bitter tears, towards heaven. >>Oh let the purpose, let the purpose, plead for the offence; plead for me the anguish of my heart, and the trial which I could not bear! I will humble, I will abase myself in the sight of God: with a thousand, with ten thousand penitential acts I will wash out the guilt of my transgression. But can I, can I now go back, without making shipwreck of all things - of my happiness, my honour, my darling Kate?<<
Somewhat tranquillised by this view of his own conduct, he beheld the morning dawn with more calmness than he had anticipated.
The ducal commissioner arrived, and expressed a wish, previously to the decisive trial, of making a little hunting excursion in company with the young forester. >>For,<< said he, >> it is all right to keep up old usages; but, between ourselves, the hunter's skill is best shown in the forest. So, jump up, Mr. Forester elect; and let's away to the forest! <<
William turned pale, and would have made excuses; but, as these availed nothing with the commissioner, he begged, at least, that he might be allowed to stand his trial first. Old Bertram shook his head thoughtfully: - >> William, William!<< said he, with a deep tremulous tone. William withdrew instantly; and in a few moments he was equipped for the chase, and, with Bertram, followed the commissioner into the forest.
The old forester sought to suppress his misgivings, but struggled in vain to assume a cheerful aspect. Katharine, too, was dejected and agitated, and went about her household labours as if dreaming. >>Was it not possible,<< she had asked her father, >>to put off the trial?<< >>I also thought of that,<< replied he, and he kissed her in silence. Recovering himself immediately, he congratulated his daughter on the day - and reminded her of' her bridal garland.
The garland had been locked up by old Anne in a drawer; and hastily attempting to open it, she injured the lock. A child was therefore dispatched to a shop to fetch another garland for the bride. >>Bring the handsomest they have,<< cried dame Anne after the child; but the child, in its simplicity, pitched upon that which glittered most: and this happened to be a bride's funeral garland of myrtle an the rosemary entwined with silver, which the mistress of the shop, not knowing the circumstances, allowed the child to carry off. The bride and the mother well understood the ominous import of this accident; each shuddered; and flinging her arms about the other's neck, sought to stifle her horror in a laugh at the child's blunder. The lock was now tried once more; it opened readily; the coronals were exchanged; and the beautiful tresses of Katharine were enwreathed with the blooming garland of a bride.
The hunting party returned. The commissioner was inexhaustible in William's praise. >>After such proofs of skill,<< said he, >> it seems next to ridiculous that I should call for any other test; but to satisfy old ordinances, we are sometimes obliged to do more than is absolutely needful: and so we will despatch the matter as briefly as possible. Yonder is a dove sitting on that pillar: level, and bring her down.<<
>>Oh! not that - not that, for God's sake, William,<< cried Katherine, hastening to the spot, >>shoot not, for God's sake, at the dove. Ah! William, last night I dreamed that I was a white dove; and my mother put a ring about my neck; then came you, and in a moment my mother was covered with blood.<<
William drew back his piece which he had already levelled; but the commissioner laughed. >>Eh, what? << said he, >> so timorous? That will never do in a forester's wife; courage, young bride, courage! Or stay, may be the dove is a pet dove of your own?<<
>> No, it's not that,<< said Katherine, >> but the dream has sadly sunk my spirits.<< >>Well, then,<< said the commissioner, >> if that's all, pluck 'em up again! and so fire away, Mr. Forester.<<
He fired; and at the same instant, with a piercing shriek, fell Katherine to the ground.
>> Strange girl! << said the commissioner, fancying that she had fallen only from panic, and raised her up, but a stream of blood flowed down her face; her forehead was shattered; and a bullet lay sunk in the wound.
>> What's the matter?<< exclaimed William, as the cry resounded behind him. He turned and saw Kate with a deathly paleness lying stretched in her blood. By her side stood the old wooden-leg, laughing in fiendish mockery, and snarling out >> Sixty go true, three go askew.<< In the madness of wrath, William drew his hanger, and made a thrust at the hideous creature. >>Accursed devil!<< cried he, in tones of despair; >> is it thus thou hast deluded me?<< More he had no power to utter; for he sank insensible to the ground close by his bleeding bride.
The commissioner and the priest sought vainly to speak comfort to the desolate parents. Scarce had the aged mother laid the ominous funeral garland upon the bosom of her daughter's corpse, when she wept away the last tears of her unfathomable grief. The solitary father soon followed her. William, the Fatal Marksman, wore away his days in a mad-house.