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- A Fool and His Money - 4/63 -
railway built, but to be sure that the safety device clutches in the cog wheels were sound and trusty. It would prove to be an infinitely more graceful mode of ascending the peak than riding up on the donkeys I had been persuaded to buy, especially for Poopendyke and me, whose legs were so long that when we sat in the saddles our knees either touched our chins or were spread out so far that we resembled the Prussian coat-of-arms.
[Illustration: I found myself staring as if stupefied at the white figure of a woman who stood in the topmost balcony]
That evening, after the workmen had filed down the steep looking for all the world like an evacuating army, I sought a few moments of peace and quiet in the small balcony outside my bedroom windows. My room was in the western wing of the castle, facing the river. The eastern wing mounted even higher than the one in which we were living, and was topped by the loftiest watch tower of them all. We had not attempted to do any work over in that section as yet, for the simple reason that Herr Schmick couldn't find the keys to the doors.
The sun was disappearing beyond the highlands and a cool, soft breeze swept up through the valley. I leaned back in a comfortable chair that Britton had selected for me, and puffed at my pipe, not quite sure that my serenity was real or assumed. This was all costing me a pretty penny. Was I, after all, parting with my money in the way prescribed for fools? Was all this splendid antiquity worth the--
My reflections terminated sharply at that critical instant and I don't believe I ever felt called upon after that to complete the inquiry.
I found myself staring as if stupefied at the white figure of a woman who stood in the topmost balcony of the eastern wing, fully revealed by the last glow of the sun and apparently as deep in dreams as I had been the instant before.
I DEFEND MY PROPERTY
For ten minutes I stood there staring up at her, completely bewildered and not a little shaken. My first thought had been of ghosts, but it was almost instantly dispelled by a significant action on the part of the suspected wraith. She turned to whistle over her shoulder, and to snap her fingers peremptorily, and then she stooped and picked up a rather lusty chow dog which promptly barked at me across the intervening space, having discovered me almost at once although I was many rods away and quite snugly ensconced among the shadows. The lady in white muzzled him with her hand and I could almost imagine I heard her reproving whispers. After a few minutes, she apparently forgot the dog and lifted her hand to adjust something in her hair. He again barked at me, quite ferociously for a chow. This time it was quite plain to her that he was not barking at the now shadowy moon. She peered over the stone balustrade and an instant later disappeared from view through the high, narrow window.
Vastly exercised, I set out in quest of Herr Schmick, martialing Poopendyke as I went along, realising that I would have to depend on his German, which was less halting than mine and therefore, more likely to dovetail with that of the Schmicks, neither of whom spoke German because they loved it but because they had to,--being Austrians. We found the four Schmicks in the vast kitchen, watching Britton while he pressed my trousers on an oak table so large that the castle must have been built around it.
Herr Schmick was weighted down with the keys of the castle, which never left his possession day or night.
"Herr Schmick," said I, "will you be so good as to inform me who the dickens that woman is over in the east wing of the castle?"
"Woman, mein herr?" He almost dropped his keys. His big sons said something to each other that I couldn't quite catch, but it sounded very much like "der duyvil."
"A woman in a white dress,--with a dog."
"A dog?" he cried. "But, mein herr, dogs are not permitted to be in the castle."
"Who is she? How did she get there?"
"Heaven defend us, sir! It must have been the ghost of--"
"Ghost, your granny!" I cried, relapsing into English. "Please don't beat about the bush, Mr. Schmick. She's over there in the unused wing, which I haven't been allowed to penetrate in spite of the fact that it belongs to me. You say you can't find the keys to that side of the castle. Will you explain how it is that it is open to strange women and--and dogs?"
"You must be mistaken, mein herr," he whined abjectly. "She cannot be there. She--Ah, I have it! It may have been my wife. Gretel! Have you been in the east--"
"Nonsense!" I cried sharply. "This won't do, Mr. Schmick. Give me that bunch of keys. We'll investigate. I can't have strange women gallivanting about the place as if they owned it. This is no trysting place for Juliets, Herr Schmick. We'll get to the bottom of this at once. Here, you Rudolph, fetch a couple of lanterns. Max, get a sledge or two from the forge. There _is_ a forge. I saw it yesterday out there back of the stables. So don't try to tell me there isn't one. If we can't unlock the doors, we'll smash 'em in. They're mine, and I'll knock 'em to smithereens if I feel like it."
The four Schmicks wrung their hands and shook their heads and, then, repairing to the scullery, growled and grumbled for fully ten minutes before deciding to obey my commands. In the meantime, I related my experience to Poopendyke and Britton.
"That reminds me, sir," said Britton, "that I found a rag-doll in the courtyard yesterday, on that side of the building, sir--I should say castle, sir."
"I am quite sure I heard a baby crying the second night we were here, Mr. Smart," said my secretary nervously.
"And there was smoke coming from one of the back chimney pots this morning," added Britton.
I was thoughtful for a moment. "What became of the rag-doll, Britton?" I enquired shrewdly.
"I turned it over to old Schmick, sir," said he. He grinned. "I thought as maybe it belonged to one of his boys."
On the aged caretaker's reappearance, I bluntly inquired what had become of the doll-baby. He was terribly confused.
"I know nothing, I know nothing," he mumbled, and I could see that he was miserably upset. His sons towered and glowered and his wife wrapped and unwrapped her hands in her apron, all the time supplicating heaven to be good to the true and the faithful.
From what I could gather, they all seemed to be more disturbed over the fact that my hallucination included a dog than by the claim that I had seen a woman.
"But, confound you, Schmick," I cried in some heat, "it barked at me."
"Gott in himmel!" they all cried, and, to my surprise, the old woman burst into tears.
"It is bad to dream of a dog," she wailed. "It means evil to all of us. Evil to--"
"Come!" said I, grabbing the keys from the old man's unresisting hand. "And, Schmick, if that dog bites me, I'll hold you personally responsible. Do you understand?"
Two abreast we filed through the long, vaulted halls, Rudolph carrying a gigantic lantern and Max a sledge. We traversed extensive corridors, mounted tortuous stairs and came at length to the sturdy oak door that separated the east wing from the west: a huge, formidable thing strengthened by many cross-pieces and studded with rusty bolt-heads. Padlocks as large as horse-shoes, corroded by rust and rendered absolutely impracticable by age, confronted us.
"I have not the keys," said old Conrad Schmick sourly. "This door has not been opened in my time. It is no use."
"It is no use," repeated his grizzly sons, leaning against the mouldy walls with weary tolerance.
"Then how did the woman and her dog get into that part of the castle?" I demanded. "Tell me that!"
They shook their heads, almost compassionately, as much as to say, "It is always best to humour a mad man."
"And the baby," added Poopendyke, turning up his coat collar to protect his thin neck from the draft that smote us from the halls.
"Smash those padlocks, Max," I commanded resolutely.
Max looked stupidly at his father and the old man looked at his wife, and then all four of them looked at me, almost imploringly.
"Why destroy a perfectly good padlock, mein herr?" began Max, twirling the sledge in his hand as if it were a bamboo cane.
"Hi! Look out there!" gasped Britton, in some alarm. "Don't let that thing slip!"
"Doesn't this castle belong to me?" I demanded, considerably impressed by the ease with which he swung the sledge. A very dangerous person, I began to perceive.
"It does, mein herr," shouted all of them gladly, and touched their forelocks.
"Everything is yours," added old Conrad, with a comprehensive sweep of his hand that might have put the whole universe in my name.
"Smash that padlock, Max," I said after a second's hesitation.
"I'll bet he can't do it," said Britton, ingeniously.
Very reluctantly Max bared his great arms, spit upon his hands, and,
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