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- A Fool and His Money - 5/63 -
with a pitiful look at his parents, prepared to deal the first blow upon the ancient padlock. The old couple turned their heads away, and put their fingers to their ears, cringing like things about to be whipped.
"Now, one--two--three!" cried I, affecting an enthusiasm I didn't feel.
The sledge fell upon the padlock and rebounded with almost equal force. The sound of the crash must have disturbed every bird and bat in the towers of the grim old pile. But the padlock merely shed a few scabs of rust and rattled back into its customary repose.
"See!" cried Max, triumphantly. "It cannot be broken." Rudolph, his broad face beaming, held the lantern close to the padlock and showed me that it hadn't been dented by the blow.
"It is a very fine lock," cried old Conrad, with a note of pride in his voice.
I began to feel some pride in the thing myself. "It is, indeed," I said. "Try once more, Max."
It seemed to me that he struck with a great deal more confidence than before, and again they all uttered ejaculations of pleasure. I caught Dame Schmick in the act of thanking God with her fingers.
"See here," I exclaimed, facing them angrily, "what does all this mean? You are deceiving me, all of you. Now, let's have the truth--every word of it--or out you go to-morrow, the whole lot of you. I insist on knowing who that woman is, why she is here in my hou--my castle, and--everything, do you understand?"
Apparently they didn't understand, for they looked at me with all the stupidity they could command.
"You try, Mr. Poopendyke," I said, giving it up in despair. He sought to improve on my German, but I think he made it worse. They positively refused to be intelligent.
"Give me the hammer," I said at last in desperation. Max surrendered the clumsy, old-fashioned instrument with a grin and I motioned for them all to stand back. Three successive blows with all the might I had in my body failed to shatter the lock, whereupon my choler rose to heights hitherto unknown, I being a very mild-mannered, placid person and averse to anything savouring of the tempestuous. I delivered a savage and resounding thwack upon the broad oak panel of the door, regardless of the destructiveness that might attend the effort. If any one had told me that I couldn't splinter an oak board with a sledge-hammer at a single blow I should have laughed in his face. But as it turned out in this case I not only failed to split the panel but broke off the sledge handle near the head, putting it wholly out of commission for the time being as well as stinging my hands so severely that I doubled up with pain and shouted words that Dame Schmick could not put into her prayers.
The Schmicks fairly glowed with joy! Afterwards Max informed me that the door was nearly six inches thick and often had withstood the assaults of huge battering rams, back in the dim past when occasion induced the primal baron to seek safety in the east wing, which, after all, appears to have been the real, simon pure fortress. The west wing was merely a setting for festal amenities and was by no means feudal in its aspect or appeal. Here, as I came to know, the old barons received their friends and feasted them and made merry with the flagon and the horn of plenty; here the humble tithe payer came to settle his dues with gold and silver instead of with blood; here the little barons and baronesses romped and rioted with childish glee; and here the barons grew fat and gross and soggy with laziness and prosperity, and here they died in stupid quiescence. On the other side of that grim, staunch old door they simply went to the other extreme in every particular. There they killed their captives, butchered their enemies, and sometimes died with the daggers of traitors in their shivering backs.
As we trudged back to the lower halls, defeated but none the less impressed by our failure to devastate our stronghold, I was struck by the awful barrenness of the surroundings. There suddenly came over me the shocking realisation: the "contents" of the castle, as set forth rather vaguely in the bill of sale, were not what I had been led to consider them. It had not occurred to me at the time of the transaction to insist upon an inventory, and I had been too busy since the beginning of my tenancy to take more than a passing account of my belongings. In excusing myself for this rather careless oversight, I can only say that during daylight hours the castle was so completely stuffed with workmen and their queer utensils that I couldn't do much in the way of elimination, and by night it was so horribly black and lonesome about the place and the halls were so littered with tools and mops and timber that it was extremely hazardous to go prowling about, so I preferred to remain in my own quarters, which were quite comfortable and cosy in spite of the distance between points of convenience.
Still I was vaguely certain that many articles I had seen about the halls on my first and second visits were no longer in evidence. Two or three antique rugs, for instance, were missing from the main hall, and there was a lamentable suggestion of emptiness at the lower end where we had stacked a quantity of rare old furniture in order to make room for the workmen.
"Herr Schmick," said I, abruptly halting my party in the centre of the hall, "what has become of the rugs that were here last week, and where is that pile of furniture we had back yonder?"
Rudolph allowed the lantern to swing behind his huge legs, intentionally I believe, and I was compelled to relieve him of it in order that we might extract ourselves from his shadow. I have never seen such a colossal shadow as the one he cast.
Old Conrad was not slow in answering.
"The gentlemen called day before yesterday, mein herr, and took much away. They will return to-morrow for the remainder."
"Gentlemen?" I gasped. "Remainder?"
"The gentlemen to whom the Herr Count sold the rugs and chairs and chests and--"
"What!" I roared. Even Poopendyke jumped at this sudden exhibition of wrath. "Do you mean to tell me that these things have been sold and carried away without my knowledge or consent? I'll have the law--"
Herr Poopendyke intervened. "They had bills of sale and orders for removal of property dated several weeks prior to your purchase, Mr. Smart. We had to let the articles go. You surely remember my speaking to you about it."
"I don't remember anything," I snapped, which was the truth. "Why--why, I bought everything that the castle contained. This is robbery! What the dickens do you mean by--"
Old Conrad held up his hands as if expecting to pacify me. I sputtered out the rest of the sentence, which really amounted to nothing.
"The Count has been selling off the lovely old pieces for the past six months, sir. Ach, what a sin! They have come here day after day, these furniture buyers, to take away the most priceless of our treasures, to sell them to the poor rich at twenty prices. I could weep over the sacrifices. I have wept, haven't I, Gretel? Eh, Rudolph? Buckets of tears have I shed, mein herr. Oceans of them. Time after time have I implored him to deny these rascally curio hunters, these blood-sucking--"
"But listen to me," I broke in. "Do you mean to say that articles have been taken away from the castle since I came into possession?"
"Many of them, sir. Always with proper credentials, believe me. Ach, what a spendthrift he is! And his poor wife! Ach, Gott, how she must suffer. Nearly all of the grand paintings, the tapestries that came from France and Italy hundreds of years ago, the wonderful old bedsteads and tables that were here when the castle was new--all gone! And for mere songs, mein herr,--the cheapest of songs! I--I--"
"Please don't weep now, Herr Schmick," I made haste to exclaim, seeing lachrymose symptoms in his blear old eyes. Then I became firm once more. This knavery must cease, or I'd know the reason why. "The next man who comes here to cart away so much as a single piece is to be kicked out. Do you understand? These things belong to me. Kick him into the river. Or, better still, notify me and I'll do it. Why, if this goes on we'll soon be deprived of anything to sit on or sleep in or eat from! Lock the doors, Conrad, and don't admit any one without first consulting me. By Jove, I'd like to wring that rascal's neck. A Count! Umph!"
"Ach, he is of the noblest family in all the land," sighed old Gretel. "His grandfather was a fine man." I contrived to subdue my rage and disappointment and somewhat loudly returned to the topic from which we were drifting.
"As for those beastly padlocks, I shall have them filed off to-morrow. I give you warning, Conrad, if the keys are not forthcoming before noon to-morrow, I'll file 'em off, so help me."
"They are yours to destroy, mein herr, God knows," said he dismally. "It is a pity to destroy fine old padlocks--"
"Well, you wait and see," said I, grimly.
His face beamed once more. "Ach, I forgot to say that there are padlocks on the _other_ side of the door, just as on this side. It will be of no use to destroy these. The door still could not be forced. Mein Gott! How thankful I am to have remembered it in time."
"Confound you, Schmick, I believe you actually want to keep me out of that part of the castle," I exploded.
The four of them protested manfully, even Gretel.
"I have a plan, sir," said Britton. "Why not place a tall ladder in the courtyard and crawl in through one of the windows?"
"Splendid! That's what we'll do!" I cried enthusiastically. "And now let's go to bed! We will breakfast at eight, Mrs. Schmick. The early bird catches the worm, you know."
"Will you see the American ladies and gentlemen who are coming to-morrow to pick out the--"
"Yes, I'll see them," said I, compressing my lips. "Don't let me over-sleep, Britton."
"I shan't, sir," said he.
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