How Hans Brought Terror to the Kitchen
ANS found himself in a pretty pickle in the chimney, for the soot got into his one eye and set it to watering, and into his nose and set him to sneezing, and into his mouth and his ears and his hair. But still he struggled on, up and up; "for every chimney has a top," said Hans to himself "and I am sure to climb out somewhere or other." Suddenly he came to a place where another chimney joined the one he was climbing, and here he stopped to consider the matter at his leisure. "See now," he muttered, "if I still go upward I may come out at the top of some tall chimney-stack with no way of getting down outside. Now, below here there must be a fire-place somewhere, for a chimney does not start from nothing at all; yes, good! we will go down a while and see what we make of that."
It was a crooked, zigzag road that he had to travel, and rough and hard into the bargain. His one eye tingled and smarted, and his knees and elbows were rubbed to the quick; nevertheless One-eyed Hans had been in worse trouble than this in his life.
Down he went and down he went, further than he had climbed upward before. "Sure, I must be near some place or other," he thought.
As though in instant answer to his thoughts, he heard the sudden sound of a voice so close beneath him that he stopped short in his downward climbing and stood as still as a mouse, with his heart in his mouth. A few inches more and he would have been discovered;—what would have happened then would have been no hard matter to foretell.
Hans braced his back against one side of the chimney, his feet against the other and then, leaning forward, looked down between his knees. The gray light of the coming evening glimmered in a wide stone fireplace just below him. Within the fireplace two people were moving about upon the broad hearth, a great, fat woman and a shock-headed boy. The woman held a spit with two newly trussed fowls upon it, so that One-eyed Hans knew that she must be the cook.
"Thou ugly toad," said the woman to the boy, "did I not bid thee make a fire an hour ago? and now, here there is not so much as a spark to roast the fowls withall, and they to be basted for the lord Baron's supper. Where hast thou been for all this time?"
"No matter," said the boy, sullenly, as he laid the fagots ready for the lighting; "no matter, I was not running after Long Jacob, the bowman, to try to catch him for a sweetheart, as thou hast been doing."
The reply was instant and ready. The cook raised her hand; "smack!" she struck and a roar from the scullion followed.
"Yes, good," thought Hans, as he looked down upon them; "I am glad that the boy's ear was not on my head."
"Now give me no more of thy talk," said the woman, "but do the work that thou hast been bidden." Then—"How came all this black soot here, I should like to know?"
"How should I know?" snuffled the scullion, "mayhap thou wouldst blame that on me also?"
"That is my doing," whispered Hans to himself; "but if they light the fire, what then becomes of me?"
"See now," said the cook; "I go to make the cakes ready; if I come back and find that thou hast not built the fire, I will warm thy other ear for thee."
"So," thought Hans; "then will be my time to come down the chimney, for there will be but one of them."
The next moment he heard the door close and knew that the cook had gone to make the cakes ready as she said. And as he looked down he saw that the boy was bending over the bundle of fagots, blowing the spark that he had brought in upon the punk into a flame. The dry fagots began to crackle and blaze. "Now is my time," said Hans to himself. Bracing his elbows against each side of the chimney, he straightened his legs so that he might fall clear. His motions loosened a little shower of soot that fell rattling upon the fagots that were now beginning to blaze brightly, whereupon the boy raised his face and looked up. Hans loosened his hold upon the chimney; crash! he fell, lighting upon his feet in the midst of the burning fagots. The scullion boy tumbled backward upon the floor, where he lay upon the broad of his back with a face as white as dough and eyes and mouth agape, staring speechlessly at the frightful inky-black figure standing in the midst of the flames and smoke. Then his scattered wits came back to him. "It is the evil one," he roared. And thereupon, turning upon his side, he half rolled, half scrambled to the door. Then out he leaped and, banging it to behind him, flew down the passageway, yelling with fright and never daring once to look behind him.
All the time One-eyed Hans was brushing away the sparks that clung to his clothes. He was as black as ink from head to foot with the soot from the chimney.
"So far all is good," he muttered to himself, "but if I go wandering about in my sooty shoes I will leave black tracks to follow me, so there is nothing to do but e'en to go barefoot. He stooped and drawing the pointed soft leather shoes from his feet, he threw them upon the now blazing fagots, where they writhed and twisted and wrinkled, and at last burst into a flame. Meanwhile Hans lost no time; he must find a hiding-place, and quickly, if he would yet hope to escape. A great bread trough stood in the corner of the kitchen—a hopper-shaped chest with a flat lid. It was the best hiding place that the room afforded. Without further thought Hans ran to it, snatching up from the table as he passed a loaf of black bread and a bottle half full of stale wine, for he had had nothing to eat since that morning. Into the great bread trough he climbed, and drawing the lid down upon him, curled himself up as snugly as a mouse in its nest.
For a while the kitchen lay in silence, but at last the sound of voices was heard at the door, whispering together in low tones. Suddenly the door was flung open and a tall, lean, lantern-jawed fellow, clad in rough frieze, strode into the room and stood there glaring with half frightened boldness around about him; three or four women and the trembling scullion crowded together in a frightened group behind him.
The man was Long Jacob, the bowman; but, after all, his boldness was all wasted, for not a thread or a hair was to be seen, but only the crackling fire throwing its cheerful ruddy glow upon the wall of the room, now rapidly darkening in the falling gray of the twilight without.
The fat cook's fright began rapidly to turn into anger.
"Thou imp," she cried, "it is one of thy tricks," and she made a dive for the scullion, who ducked around the skirts of one of the other women and so escaped for the time; but Long Jacob wrinkled up his nose and sniffed. "Nay," said he, "me thinks that there lieth some truth in the tale that the boy hath told, for here is a vile smell of burned horn that the black one hath left behind him."
It was the smell from the soft leather shoes that Hans had burned.
The silence of night had fallen over the Castle of Trutz-Drachen; not a sound was heard but the squeaking of mice scurring behind the wainscoting, the dull dripping of moisture from the eaves, or the sighing of the night wind around the gables and through the naked windows of the castle.
The lid of the great dough trough was softly raised, and a face, black with soot, peeped cautiously out from under it. Then little by little arose a figure as black as the face; and One-eyed Hans stepped out upon the floor, stretching and rubbing himself.
"Methinks I must have slept," he muttered. "Hui, I am as stiff as a new leather doublet, and now, what next is to become of me? I hope my luck may yet stick to me, in spite of this foul black soot!"
Along the middle of the front of the great hall of the castle, ran a long stone gallery, opening at one end upon the court-yard by a high flight of stone steps. A man-at-arms in breast-plate and steel cap, and bearing a long pike, paced up and down the length of this gallery, now and then stopping, leaning over the edge, and gazing up into the starry sky above; then, with a long drawn yawn, lazily turning back to the monotonous watch again.
A dark figure crept out from an arched doorway at the lower part of the long straight building, and some little distance below the end gallery, but the sentry saw nothing of it, for his back was turned. As silently and as stealthily as a cat the figure crawled along by the dark shadowy wall, now and then stopping, and then again creeping slowly forward toward the gallery where the man-at-arms moved monotonously up and down. It was One-eyed Hans in his bare feet.
Inch by inch, foot by foot—the black figure crawled along in the angle of the wall; inch by inch and foot by foot, but ever nearer and nearer to the long straight row of stone steps that led to the covered gallery. At last it crouched at the lowest step of the flight. Just then the sentinel upon watch came to the very end of the gallery and stood there leaning upon his spear. Had he looked down below he could not have failed to have seen One-eyed Hans lying there motionlessly; but he was gazing far away over the steep black roofs beyond, and never saw the unsuspected presence. Minute after minute passed, and the one stood there looking out into the night and the other lay crouching by the wall; then with a weary sigh the sentry turned and began slowly pacing back again toward the farther end of the gallery.
Instantly the motionless figure below arose and glided noiselessly and swiftly up the flight of steps.
Two rude stone pillars flanked either side of the end of the gallery. Like a shadow the black figure slipped behind one of these, flattening itself up against the wall, where it stood straight and motionless as the shadows around it.
Down the long gallery came the watchman, his sword clinking loudly in the silence as he walked, tramp, tramp, tramp! clink, clank, jingle!
Within three feet of the motionless figure behind the pillar he turned, and began retracing his monotonous steps. Instantly the other left the shadow of the post and crept rapidly and stealthily after him. One step, two steps the sentinel took; for a moment the black figure behind him seemed to crouch and draw together, then like a flash it leaped forward upon its victim.
A shadowy cloth fell upon the man's face, and in an instant he was flung back and down with a muffled crash upon the stones. Then followed a fierce and silent struggle in the darkness, but strong and sturdy as the man was, he was no match for the almost superhuman strength of One-eyed Hans. The cloth which he had flung over his head was tied tightly and securely. Then the man was forced upon his face and, in spite of his fierce struggles, his arms were bound around and around with strong fine cord; next his feet were bound in the same way, and the task was done. Then Hans stood upon his feet, and wiped the sweat from his swarthy forehead. "Listen, brother," he whispered, and as he spoke he stooped and pressed something cold and hard against the neck of the other. "Dost thou know the feel of this? It is a broad dagger, and if thou dost contrive to loose that gag from thy mouth and makest any outcry, it shall be sheathed in thy weasand."
So saying, he thrust the knife back again into its sheath, then stooping and picking up the other, he flung him across his shoulder like a sack, and running down the steps as lightly as though his load was nothing at all, he carried his burden to the arched doorway whence he had come a little while before. There, having first stripped his prisoner of all his weapons, Hans sat the man up in the angle of the wall. "So, brother;" said he, "now we can talk with more ease than we could up yonder. I will tell thee frankly why I am here; it is to find where the young Baron Otto of Drachenhausen is kept. If thou canst tell me, well and good; if not, I must e'en cut thy weasand and find me one who knoweth more. Now, canst thou tell me what I would learn, brother?"
The other nodded dimly in the darkness.
"That is good," said Hans, "then I will loose thy gag until thou hast told me; only bear in mind what I said concerning my dagger."
Thereupon, he unbound his prisoner, and the fellow slowly rose to his feet. He shook himself and looked all about him in a heavy, bewildered fashion, as though he had just awakened from a dream.
His right hand slid furtively down to his side, but the dagger-sheath was empty.
"Come, brother!" said Hans, impatiently, "time is passing, and once lost can never be found again. Show me the way to the young Baron Otto or —." And he whetted the shining blade of his dagger on his horny palm.
The fellow needed no further bidding; turning, he led the way, and together they were swallowed up in the yawning shadows, and again the hush of night-time lay upon the Castle of Trutz-Drachen.