Friday, 1 June 2007
05:48:08 PM (GMT)
This is a short story I've just finished.
In a forest of mixed growth somewhere on the eastern spurs of the Carpathians, a
man stood one winter night watching and listening, as though he waited for some beast
of the woods to come within the range of his vision, and, later, of his rifle. But
the game for whose presence he kept so keen an outlook was none that figured in the
sportman's calender as lawful and proper for the chase; Ulrich von Gradwitz patrolled
the dark forest in quest of a human enemy.
The forest lands of Gradwitz were of wide extent and well stocked with game; the
narrow strip of precipitous woodland that lay on its outskirt was not remarkable for
the game it harbored or the shooting it afforded, bit it was the most jealousy
guarded of all its owner's territorial possessions. A famous lawsuit, in the days of
his grandfather, had wrestledit from the illegal possession of a neighboring family
of petty landowners; the dispossessed party had never acquiesced in the judgement of
the Courts, and a long series of poaching affrays and similar scandals had
embrittered the relationships between the families for three generations. The
neighbor feud had grown into a personal one since Ulrich had come to be head of his
family; if there was a man in the world whom he detested and wished ill to it was
Georg Znaeym, the inheritor of the quarrel and the tireless game-snatcher and raider
of the disputed borderforset. The feud might, perhaps, have died down or been
compromised if the personal ill-will of the two men had not stood in the way; as boys
they had thirsted for one another's blood, as men each prayedthat misfortune might
fall on the other, and this wind-scourged winter night Ulrich had banded together his
foresters to watch the dark forset, not in quest of four-footed quarry, but to keep a
look-out for the prowling thieves whom suspected of being of bein afoot from across
the land boundary. The roebuck, which usually kept in the sheltered hollows during a
wind-storm, were running like driven things tonight, and there was movement and
unrest among the creatures that were wont to sleep through the dark hours. Assuredly
there was a disturbing element in the forest, and Ulrich could guess the quarter from
whence it came.
He strayed away by himself from the watchers whom he had placed in ambush on the
crest of the hill, and wandered far down the steep slopes amid the wild tangle of
undergrowth, peering through the tree trunks and listening through the whistling and
skirling of the wind and the restless beating of the branches for sight or sound of
the marauders. If only on this wild night, in this dark, lone spot, he might come
across Georg Znaeyam, man to man, with none to witness- that was the wish that was
uppermost in his thoughts. And as he stepped 'round the trunk of a huge beech he came
face to face with the man he sought.
The two enemies stood glaring at one another for a long silent moment. Each had a
rifle in his hand, each had hate in his heart and murder uppermost in his mind. The
chance had come to give full play to the passions of a lifetime. But a man who has
been brought up under the code of a restraining civilization cannot easily nerve
himself to shoot down his neighbor in cold blood and without word spoken, except for
an offence against his hearth and honor. And before the moment of hesitation had
given way to action a deed of Nature's own violence overwhelmed them both. A fierce
shriek of the storm had been answered by a splitting crash over their heads, and
ere they could leap aside a mass of falling beech tree had thundered down on them.
Ulrich von Gradwitz found himself stretched on the ground, one arm numb beneath him
and the other held almost as helplessly in a tight tangle of forged branches , while
both legs were pinned beneath the fallen mass. His heavy shooting-boots had saved his
feet from being crushed to pieces, but if his fractures were not as serious as they
might have been, at least it was evident that he could not move from his present
position till someone came to release him. The descending twigs had slashed the skin
of his face, and he had to wink away some drops of blood from his eyelashes beofre he
could take in a general view of the disaster. At his side, so near that under
ordinary circumstances he could almost have touhed him, lay Georg Znaeym, alive and
struggling, but obviously as helplessy pinioned down as himself. All 'round them lay
a thick strewn wreckage of splintered branches and broken twigs.
Relief at being alive and exasperation at his captive plight brought a strange
medly of pious thank-offerings and sharp curses to Ulrich's lips. Georg, who was
nearly blinded with blood which trickled across his eyes, stopped hhis struggling for
a moment to listen, and then gave a short, snarling laugh.
"So you're not killed, as you ought to be, but you're caught, anyway," he cried;
"caught fast. Ho, what a jest, Ulrich von Gradwitz snarled in his stolen forest.
There's real justice for you!"
And he laughed again, mockingly and savagely.
"I'm caight in my own forest-land," retorted Ulrich.
"When my men come to release us you will wish, perhaps, that you were in a better
plight than caught poaching on a neighbor's land, shame on you."
Georg was silent for a moment; then he asnwered quietly:
"Are you sure that your men will find much to release? I have men, too, in the
forest tonight, close behind me, and they will be here first and do the
releasing. When they drag me out from under these damned branches it won''t need much
clumsiness on their part to roll this mass of trunk right over on top of you. Your
men will find you dead under a fallen beech tree. For form's sake I shall send my
condolences to your family."
"It is a useful hint," said Ulrich fiercely. "My men had orders to follow in ten
minutes' time, seven of which must have have already, and when they get me out- I
will remember the hint. Only as you will have met your death poaching on my lands I
don't think I can decently send any message of condolence to your family."
"Good," snarled Georg. "good. We fight this quarrel out to death, you and I and our
foresters, with no cursed interlopers to some between us. Death and damnation to you,
Ulrich von Gradwitz."
"The same to you, Georg Znaeym, forest-thief, game-snatcher."
Both men spoke with the bitterness of possible defeat before them, for each knew
that it might be long before his men would seek him out or find him; it was a bare
matter of chance which party would arrive first on the scene.
Both had now given up the useless struggle to free themselves from the mass of wood
that held them down; Ulrich limited his endeavors to an effort to bring his one
partially free arm near enough to his outer coat-pocket to draw out his wine-flask.
Even when he had accomplished that operation it was long before he could manage the
unscrewing of the stopper or get any of the liquid down his throat. But what a
Heaven- sent draught it seemed! It was an open winter, and little snow had fallen as
yet, hence the captives suffered less from the cold than might ahve been the case at
the season of the year; nevertheless, then wine was warming and reviving to the
wounded man, and he looked across with something like a throb of pity to where his
enemy lay, just keeping the groans of pain and weariness from crossing his lips.
"Could you reach this flask if I threw it over to you?" asked Ulrich suddenly;
"there is good wine in it, and one may as well as comfortable as one can. Let us
drink, evem if tonight one of us dies."
"No, I can scarcely see anything; there is so much blood caked around my eyes,"
said Georg, "and in any case I don't drink wine with an enemy."
Ulrich was silent for a few minutes, and lay listening to the weary screetching of
the wind. An idea was slowly forming and growing in his brain, an idea that gained
strength every time he looked across at the man whowas fighting so grimly against the
pain and exhaustion. In the apin and langor that Ulrich himself was feeling the old
fierce hatred seemed to by dying down.
"Neighbor," he said presently, "do as you please if your men come first. It was a
fair compact. But as for me, I've changed my mind. If my men are the first to come
you shall be the first to be helped, as though you were my guest. We have quarreled
like devils all our lives over this stupid strip of forest, where the trees can't
even stand upright in a breath of wind. Lying here tonight, thinking, I've come to
think we've been rather fools; there are better things in life than getting the
better of a boundary dispute. Neighbor, if you will help me to bury the old quarrel
I-I will ask you to be my friend."
Georg Znaeym was silent for so long that Ulrich thought, perhaps, he had fainted
with the pain of his injuries. Then he spoke slowly and in jerks.
"How the whole region would stare and gabble if we rode into the market-square
together. No one living can remember a Znaeym and a von Gradwitz talking to one
another in friendship. And what peace there would be among the forester folk if we
ended our feud tonight. And if we chose to make peace among our people there is none
other to interfere, no interlopes from outside ... You would come and keep the
Sylvester night beneath my roof, and I would come and feast on some high day at your
castle. . . . I would never fire a shot on your land, save when you invited me as a
guest; and you would come and shoot with me down the marshes where the wildfowl are.
In all the countryside there are none that could hinder it if we willed to make
peace. I never thought to have wanted to do other than hate you all my life, but I
think I have changed me mind about things too, this last half-hour. And you offered
me your wine-flask. . . Ulrich von Gradwitz, I will be your friend."
For a space both men were silent, turning over in their minds the wonderful changes
that this dramatic reconcilation would bring about. In the cold, gloomy forest, with
the wind tearing in fitful gusts through the naked branches and whistling 'round the
tree trunks, they lay and waited for the help that would bring release and succor to
both parties. And each prayed a private prayer that his men might be the first to
arrive, so that he might be the first to show honorable attention to the enemy that
he had become a friend.
I'm not quite finished yet, dears. I bet you can already see the evil grin that
graced my face, eh? More to come. Comment, please, on the story.