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- Greifenstein - 70/80 -
to prevent the letter reaching the hands for which it was destined. There was no time like the present, thought the sturdy Berbel, and no day like to-day for doing unpleasant things which could not be avoided.
It was necessary to find an opportunity of speaking with Hilda alone, without danger of interruption, and as soon as possible. It was yet early morning, and Hilda was in all probability still asleep, dreaming of the festivities of the previous day, but it would be important to know whether Greif was up or not, and whether he intended to leave the castle during the morning. Berbel left her room and went down to the court. The men were sure to know if Greif had meant to go into the forest or to stay at home, as he would certainly have given orders for some one to accompany him. He was not like his father, who had loved to tramp all day alone, wearying himself out, and coming home late in the evening, in the perpetual attempt to make the days seem short. Greif was by nature gregarious, and was not satisfied with the society of his dogs, but usually took a couple of men with him, when he could not prevail upon Rex to join in his expeditions.
Berbel went into the court and asked a few questions, carelessly enough. It was a warm morning and the men seemed sleepy after the carousal of the previous night. None of them had received any orders for the day, and those who had anything to do went about their occupations in a leisurely fashion, slowly and deliberately, while those who had no work sat together in a shady corner smoking their porcelain pipes, and discussing the festive reminiscences of the christening, enjoying their idleness as very strong men can, who habitually work hard and say little. It was evident that nothing would be done on that day, and it was probable that Greif would stay at home. Berbel turned away and went towards the entrance of the hall. She was about to go in when she heard footsteps behind her, and on looking round saw Wastei striding up with his long, greyhound step.
'God greet you, Frau Berbel,' he said, coming nearer.
He was no longer arrayed in his magnificent velvet coat as on the previous day. Such finery was only for the greatest festivities, and at present he wore no jacket at all, but a rough waistcoat with metal buttons, which hung loose and open over his shirt, and he had a bundle under his arm.
'Good morning, Wastei,' answered Berbel, fixing her sharp eyes upon him with a look of inquiry. She wondered why he had come.
'I have brought you something,' he remarked, standing still before her, and tapping the bundle he carried with one hand.
'More trout?' inquired Berbel with a twitching smile. 'There is no gold to be picked up to-day, Master Wastei.'
'Unfortunately,' he answered. 'But then one can never know,' he added reflectively.
'Out with it!' exclaimed Berbel who was not in a humour for long conversations.
'Out with it is soon said,' returned the other. 'It is a serious matter. Do you think I can chatter like a magpie without thinking of what I am to say?'
'Then think, and be quick about it, or I shall go in.'
'Oh, if you are in a hurry, you may take the bundle without any explanation,' replied Wastei, holding it out towards her. Berbel took it, and felt it, as though trying to guess what it contained.
'What is it?' she asked at length, as her imagination failed to suggest the nature of the contents.
'It is my coat,' said Wastei. 'The old wolf's coat, if you like it better.'
'And what am I to do with your coat?' inquired Berbel. In spite of the question she had thrust the bundle under one arm and held it firmly, with the evident intention of keeping it.
'When you have given the letter to the baron, you might be so kind as to mend the pocket for me,' said Wastei calmly.
'But I told you I should perhaps wait some time before giving the letter.'
'Yes--but you have thought about that in the night,' answered Wastei keenly. 'You will not wait much longer than to-day.'
'What makes you think that?'
'It would not be like you, Frau Berbel,' said the man, with affected indifference.
'Perhaps not,' replied Berbel, smiling unconsciously at the subtle flattery bestowed upon her scrupulously honest character. 'Perhaps not. I had thought of it, as you say.'
'And I had thought that unless the old wolf's coat were there with the hole in the pocket, Frau Berbel might not be able to make it quite clear that Master Wastei had spoken the truth. But if the truth is quite clear, why then--' he paused, as though he did not care what might happen in such a case.
Berbel looked at him for a moment, and then laughed a little, a phenomenon which with her was exceedingly unusual.
'You are really not stupid at all,' she remarked. The ghost of a smile played about Wastei's thin lips as he turned his eyes upon her. Their expression was at once keen, cunning and good-natured.
'Nobody ever said I was particularly dull,' he answered.
'Then you want me to show the coat, together with the letter?'
'But when they know that it belonged to Herr von Greifenstein, they will wish to keep it, will they not?'
'Of course,' repeated Wastei.
'And then, when they find that you have bought it honestly, they will want to buy it of you.'
'And you gave twenty marks for it?'
'And you think they will give you more for it, though I shall tell them just what it cost you at the Jew's?'
'You are not stupid, Wastei. You are not stupid at all. But I thought you imagined the coat would bring you luck. I wonder that you want to part with it!'
'Do you? Is it not luck if I get more for it than it cost at the Jew's?' The man's eyes twinkled as he spoke.
'There is certainly something in what you say,' answered Berbel. 'I am not surprised that you got it so cheap. You understand a bargain, I see.'
'And you will be glad, too, Frau Berbel, when you have to explain how the letter was found,' said Wastei thoughtfully. 'You will be glad to have the coat in your hands to show, and if they like, they can go to the Jew and he will tell them that I bought it only the other day.'
'You are quite sure you are telling the truth, Wastei?'
'I always do, now that I have a gun license,' he answered. 'You see, the truth is best for people who have anything to lose.' 'Fie, Wastei!' exclaimed Berbel, half inclined to smile at his odd philosophy, but unwilling to let him see that she could appreciate a jest upon so moral a subject.
'It is true, Frau Berbel. Not that I ever lied much, either, though I have told some smart tales to the foresters in the old days, when I was a free-shot in the forest, and they were always trying to catch me with a hare in my pocket--and to you too, Frau Berbel, when I used to make you think the game was all right. What did it matter, so long as you had it to eat, you and--well, those were queer times. I suppose you have game whenever you like, now, do you not?'
'Ay, Wastei--I sometimes could not find any lead in your hares--'
'That made them lighter to carry and more wholesome to eat,' observed the other with a chuckle.
'And I had my doubts about them, of course--'
'But you did not ask many questions--not very many--did you?'
'Not always, Wastei,' answered Berbel with a twitch of the lips. 'You see I thought it best to believe you, and to treat you like an honest fellow. There were reasons--'
'Better than doubts, especially when the hare was dead and lying on your kitchen table. Well, well, those times are gone now, and if I ever shot a hare or a roebuck without lead, or pulled the trout out of the stream without making a hole in his nose, why I have forgotten it, and I will not do it again, I promise you. I am growing old, Frau Berbel, I am growing old.'
'And wise, I hope--'
'When a man is young he can do without a gun license,' observed Wastei. 'When the years begin to come, he wants that and other things too. May- wine in May, Frau Berbel, and brown beer in October.'
'And all the cherry spirits you can pick up, between times, I suppose. What are the other things?'
'A good house to live in, and a good wife to roll the potato dumplings. These are two things that are good when the grey years come.'
'You put the house before the wife, I see,' remarked Berbel.
'Because if I had a good house I could have the good wife fast enough. Wastei is not so dull as he looks. He has looked about him in the
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