RITZ, the swineherd, sat eating his late supper of porridge out of a great, coarse, wooden bowl; wife Katherine sat at the other end of the table, and the half-naked little children played upon the earthen floor. A shaggy dog lay curled up in front of the fire, and a grunting pig scratched against a leg of the rude table close beside where the woman sat.
"Yes, yes," said Katherine, speaking of the matter of which they had already been talking. "It is all very true that the Drachenhausens are a bad lot, and I for one am of no mind to say no to that; all the same it is a sad thing that a simple-witted little child like the young Baron should be so treated as the boy has been; and now that our Lord Baron has served him so that he, at least, will never be able to do us harm, I for one say that he should not be left there to die alone in that black cell."
Fritz, the swineheard, sat eating his late supper of porridge.
Fritz, the swineherd, gave a grunt at this without raising his eyes from the bowl.
"Yes, good," said Katherine, "I know what thou meanest, Fritz, and that it is none of my business to be thrusting my finger into the Baron's dish. But to hear the way that dear little child spoke when she was here this morn—it would have moved a heart of stone to hear her tell of all his pretty talk. Thou wilt try to let the red-beard know that that poor boy, his son, is sick to death in the black cell; wilt thou not, Fritz?"
The swineherd dropped his wooden spoon into the bowl with a clatter. "Potstausand!" he cried; "art thou gone out of thy head to let thy wits run upon such things as this of which thou talkest to me? If it should come to our Lord Baron's ears he would cut the tongue from out thy head and my head from off my shoulders for it. Dost thou think I am going to meddle in such a matter as this? Listen! these proud Baron folk, with their masterful ways, drive our sort hither and thither; they beat us, they drive us, they kill us as they choose. Our lives are not as much to them as one of my black swine. Why should I trouble my head if they choose to lop and trim one another? The fewer there are of them the better for us, say I. We poor folk have a hard enough life of it without thrusting our heads into the noose to help them out of their troubles. What thinkest thou would happen to us if Baron Henry should hear of our betraying his affairs to the Red-beard?"
"Nay," said Katherine, "thou hast naught to do in the matter but to tell the Red-beard in what part of the castle the little Baron lies."
"And what good would that do?" said Fritz, the swineherd.
"I know not," said Katherine, "but I have promised the little one that thou wouldst find the Baron Conrad and tell him that much."
"Thou hast promised a mare's egg," said her husband, angrily. "How shall I find the Baron Conrad to bear a message to him, when our Baron has been looking for him in vain for two days past?"
"Thou has found him once and thou mayst find him again," said Katherine, "for it is not likely that he will keep far away from here whilst his boy is in such sore need of help."
"I will have nothing to do with it!" said Fritz, and he got up from the wooden block whereon he was sitting and stumped out of the house. But, then, Katherine had heard him talk in that way before, and knew, in spite of his saying "no," that, sooner or later, he would do as she wished.
Two days later a very stout little one-eyed man, clad in a leathern jerkin and wearing a round leathern cap upon his head, came toiling up the path to the postern door of Trutz-Drachen, his back bowed under the burthen of a great peddler's pack. It was our old friend the one-eyed Hans, though even his brother would hardly have known him in his present guise, for, besides having turned peddler, he had grown of a sudden surprisingly fat.
Rap-tap-tap! He knocked at the door with a knotted end of the crooked thorned staff upon which he leaned. He waited for a while and then knocked again—rap-tap-tap!
Presently, with a click, a little square wicket that pierced the door was opened, and a woman's face peered out through the iron bars.
The one-eyed Hans whipped off his leathern cap.
"Good day, pretty one," said he, "and hast thou any need of glass beads, ribbons, combs, or trinkets? Here I am come all the way from Gruenstadt, with a pack full of such gay things as thou never laid eyes on before. Here be rings and bracelets and necklaces that might be of pure silver and set with diamonds and rubies, for anything that thy dear one could tell if he saw thee decked in them. And all are so cheap that thou hast only to say, 'I want them,' and they are thine."
The frightened face at the window looked from right to left and from left to right. "Hush," said the girl, and laid her finger upon her lips. "There! thou hadst best get away from here, poor soul, as fast as thy legs can carry thee, for if the Lord Baron should find thee here talking secretly at the postern door, he would loose the wolf-hounds upon thee."
"Prut," said one-eyed Hans, with a grin, "the Baron is too big a fly to see such a little gnat as I; but wolf-hounds or no wolf-hounds, I can never go hence without showing thee the pretty things that I have brought from the town, even though my stay be at the danger of my own hide."
He flung the pack from off his shoulders as he spoke and fell to unstrapping it, while the round face of the lass (her eyes big with curiosity) peered down at him through the grated iron bars.
Hans held up a necklace of blue and white beads that glistened like jewels in the sun, and from them hung a gorgeous filigree cross. "Didst thou ever see a sweeter thing than this?" said he; "and look, here is a comb that even the silversmith would swear was pure silver all the way through." Then, in a soft, wheedling voice, "Canst thou not let me in, my little bird? Sure there are other lasses besides thyself who would like to trade with a poor peddler who has travelled all the way from Gruenstadt just to please the pretty ones of Trutz-Drachen."
"Nay," said the lass, in a frightened voice, "I cannot let thee in; I know not what the Baron would do to me, even now, if he knew that I was here talking to a stranger at the postern;" and she made as if she would clap to the little window in his face; but the one-eyed Hans thrust his staff betwixt the bars and so kept the shutter open.
Hans held up a necklace of blue and white beads.
"Nay, nay," said he, eagerly, "do not go away from me too soon. Look, dear one; seest thou this necklace?"
"Aye," said she, looking hungrily at it.
"Then listen; if thou wilt but let me into the castle, so that I may strike a trade, I will give it to thee for thine own without thy paying a barley corn for it."
The girl looked and hesitated, and then looked again; the temptation was too great. There was a noise of softly drawn bolts and bars, the door was hesitatingly opened a little way, and, in a twinkling, the one-eyed Hans had slipped inside the castle, pack and all.
"The necklace," said the girl, in a frightened whisper.
Hans thrust it into her hand. "It's thine," said he, "and now wilt thou not help me to a trade?"
"I will tell my sister that thou art here," said she, and away she ran from the little stone hallway, carefully bolting and locking the further door behind her.
The door that the girl had locked was the only one that connected the postern hall with the castle.
The one-eyed Hans stood looking after her. "Thou fool!" he muttered to himself, "to lock the door behind thee. What shall I do next, I should like to know? Here am I just as badly off as I was when I stood outside the walls. Thou hussy! If thou hadst but let me into the castle for only two little minutes, I would have found somewhere to have hidden myself while thy back was turned. But what shall I do now?" He rested his pack upon the floor and stood looking about him.
Built in the stone wall opposite to him, was a high, narrow fireplace without carving of any sort. As Hans' one eye wandered around the bare stone space, his glance fell at last upon it, and there it rested. For a while he stood looking intently at it, presently he began rubbing his hand over his bristling chin in a thoughtful, meditative manner. Finally he drew a deep breath, and giving himself a shake as though to arouse himself from his thoughts, and after listening a moment or two to make sure that no one was nigh, he walked softly to the fireplace, and stooping, peered up the chimney. Above him yawned a black cavernous depth, inky with the soot of years. Hans straightened himself, and tilting his leathern cap to one side, began scratching his bullet-head; at last he drew a long breath. "Yes, good," he muttered to himself; "he who jumps into the river must e'en swim the best he can. It is a vile, dirty place to thrust one's self, but I am in for it now, and must make the best of a lame horse."
He settled the cap more firmly upon his head, spat upon his hands, and once more stooping in the fireplace, gave a leap, and up the chimney he went with a rattle of loose mortar and a black trickle of soot.
By and by footsteps sounded outside the door. There was a pause; a hurried whispering of women's voices; the twitter of a nervous laugh, and then the door was pushed softly open, and the girl to whom the one-eyed Hans had given the necklace of blue and white beads with the filigree cross hanging from it, peeped uncertainly into the room. Behind her broad, heavy face were three others, equally homely and stolid; for a while all four stood there, looking blankly into the room and around it. Nothing was there but the peddler's knapsack lying in the middle of the floor—the man was gone. The light of expectancy slowly faded out of the girl's face, and in its place succeeded first bewilderment and then dull alarm. "But, dear heaven," she said, "where then has the peddler man gone?"
A moment or two of silence followed her speech. "Perhaps," said one of the others, in a voice hushed with awe, "perhaps it was the evil one himself to whom thou didst open the door."
Again there was a hushed and breathless pause; it was the lass who had let Hans in at the postern, who next spoke.
"Yes," said she, in a voice trembling with fright at what she had done, "yes, it must have been the evil one, for now I remember he had but one eye." The four girls crossed themselves, and their eyes grew big and round with the fright.
Suddenly a shower of mortar came rattling down the chimney. "Ach!" cried the four, as with one voice. Bang! the door was clapped to and away they scurried like a flock of frightened rabbits.
When Jacob, the watchman, came that way an hour later, upon his evening round of the castle, he found a peddler's knapsack lying in the middle of the floor. He turned it over with his pike-staff and saw that it was full of beads and trinkets and ribbons.
"How came this here?" said he. And then, without waiting for the answer which he did not expect, he flung it over his shoulder and marched away with it.