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THE ELIXIR OF YOUTH

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A LEGEND OF THE HARZ MOUNTAINS


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As published in The South Australian Chronicle, Adelaide, 26 December 1891

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2019
Version Date: 2019-06-18
Produced by Keith Emmett and Roy Glashan

All content added by RGL is proprietary and protected by copyright.



TABLE OF CONTENTS



CHAPTER I.

RIGHT in the midst of the Harz Mountains dwelt an old, old man. The foresters who earned a scanty living, and the hunters of wild animals, sometimes, but very rarely, caught a glimpse at him, but never had they had the hardihood to follow him and ascertain where he lived.

Those who had seen him knew that his once powerful frame was nearly doubled by age, and that his snow-white hair and beard fell almost to his waist. They saw also that he always carried a large knotted stick with which he aided his footsteps and with which, perhaps, he would have protected himself against prying invaders. Nobody, however, had dared to interfere in any manner with the hermit, as should anyone chance to cross his path in the deep heart of the forest one glance of his eye—which the foresters described as singularly blue and fierce—would deter the rash intruder and send him off quickly in an opposite direction. This much, however, they had time to notice—the old man always carried a bundle of herbs and plants, and appeared to be eagerly seeking for others.

Hans Veldt, famed as a skilled hunter, had indeed once, coming upon him unawares, heard him mutter—

"I must find it, I must find it, or it will be too late, too late."

With the last words his voice had rung out in a mournful wail, and Hans Veldt, scared, had crossed himself after the fashion of Paulo the Papist, who had once visited him, and who declared that if one crossed one's self and invoked one's patron saint, the Evil One himself would be powerless; and hurrying home with all speed to his hut on the banks of the Weser, startled his fair daughter, who was sitting in the doorway quietly plaiting her long fair hair, by a recital of what he had seen and heard.

Now Liesel* was, like most girls of sixteen, full of curiosity; and as she listened to her father's account she determined secretly to penetrate deep, deep into the mighty forest, find the old man's abode, and speak to him if possible.

"What can he live upon? The poor old man!" she reflected, knitting her fair young brow. "He cannot bake bread, because he cannot grow corn or rye; and he cannot have meat, because surely he is too old to hunt. Wait till the morrow comes, and my father is safely away—I will go."

The next morning Hans started earlier than usual, taking with him a good stock of ammunition, with which he filled his bearskin pouch. He also told Liesel to put up more than an ordinary day's supply of bread and venison, as he was going a long distance, and might not return that night.

"Be sure you fasten the door securely against the wolves at night," was his parting injunction, "and don't linger about after nightfall."

Liesel promised, and joyfully watched her father out of sight; for the adventure she had in view was an entirely novel one, as her father rarely permitted her to wander far into the woods unless in his company.

Arraying herself in her stoutest short homespun dress, and securely plaiting and tying her long fair tresses lest they should become entangled in the thickets and brambles of the dense forest, Liesel set off, taking care to provide herself with a small basket of food.

For some hours she pressed through the forest, stopping now and again to gather rare flowers and mosses which pleased her. One lovely white flower which she discovered quite by accident delighted her most. She had come upon a narrow track whose moss- grown path was wet and slippery from the recent rain, and she had suddenly slipped down a steep incline whose almost precipitous side was covered with bushes and brambles, forming a cool, deep, dark hollow, like a well, at the base.

When she had got over her fright, and sitting up looked around her, the gloom and mist were so intense that for a few minutes she could see nothing. Then, her eye becoming accustomed to the dull light, she saw gleaming in front of her a few large white star-shaped flowers growing on a small plant whose leaves were spike-shaped.

"Oh! how pretty!" said Liesel. "Lovely little blossoms; it is a shame to pluck you, but I must have two of you. Let me count—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven of you, all growing on the one plant; I will not take all of you, pretty dears, but let me have just two, because I never saw anything so lovely before."

Then, as she carefully gathered two on their long stems, she took off her large rush hat, which she had plaited for herself, and stuck the flowers in the front of the brim.

"How you gleam and flash, you darlings! You must be like those precious gems that father tells me of, and that fine ladies wear in their hair and on their hands and arms. Father saw one of those ladies once, and he said she flashed like the stars. You will be my jewels, pretty flowers. And now, farewell, sweetest, prettiest blossoms. I will mark this spot so that I may return and find you here yet once again."

Laboriously climbing the steep ascent down which she had slipped so swiftly, Liesel arrived very much out of breath at the summit, and looked about for something with which to mark the spot.

Strong and supple, she quickly broke down a young sapling, and stripping it of its outer bark made it look in the bright sunshine like a gleaming silver wand. This she stuck deeply into the soft soil at the top of the incline, and taking the bright ribbon from her neck bound it securely to the top of the sapling, where it fluttered in the breeze like a gay little flag.

"Oh! that will do," said Liesel. Like many girls who live much alone, she had formed the habit of talking to all things—to herself, to the birds, to animals, and even to the funny little brown fish and frogs which sometimes came to the margin of the river. Thus she was happy in the midst of her solitary surroundings; for the hunters' huts were few and scattered, and intercourse between them, or the foresters, was very rare.

Only once a year Hans carried skins to the great town, which to Liesel's imagination was a veritable fairyland, for her father had never taken her with him. She, losing her mother when a mere baby, had grown up like some fair young flower—alone, and almost unseen by human being, save her father and an occasional hunter or forester, who at very rare intervals might visit their hut.

So now, Liesel tenderly stroked her bright red ribbon which she was leaving fluttering on the peeled wand, and said softly—"Don't think I do not value you, dear ribbon. I will not desert you. I will come once more and take you again. You are merely guarding the lovely flowers which I shall come for one day, if not to pluck, to look at; for oh! ribbon, they are so lovely. See, here are two of them in my hat. Now you have seen their beauty you will not mind guarding them."

Through the forest, on and on, pausing to look at the track of wild beasts and little forest animals, startling many of the latter from their lairs, and causing them to scuttle away as fast as their four little legs would carry them. Liesel would have liked to have caught them, stroked them gently and talked to them. It pained her greatly that they should fear her.

"Why do you run away, little creature?" she asked, as a stoat fled from her with every indication of alarm, "Liesel would never hurt you."

She came presently to an open space whose green velvety- looking sward and canopy of grand trees delighted her. She sat down and rested awhile, thinking of the lovely flowers which were in the brim of her hat.

"I must look at them again," she said, "how fresh they keep. I wonder what flowers they are?"

Liesel was not entirely ignorant. Her father could read, and he had taught her when she was quite a little thing. On each of his visits to Coburg he had brought her a book, so that now she had quite a little library. Among the volumes was an old work on botany, which he, noticing her love for plants and flowers, had bought for her, knowing the pleasure it would give her to study it. And many and many a weary day had Liesel beguiled in comparing the plants and flowers she found with those mentioned in her book.

"There is no flower in my book at all like this," she thought, and then put on her hat and jumped up.

"It must be getting late. I must be quick if I want to find my old man of the woods. What a funny little path leads from here. So narrow that I shall almost have to press through it; and the trees are growing so thickly on either side as to form quite a wall."

They were, indeed. The trees and undergrowth on either side the narrow path formed a wall of impenetrable thickness, whilst arching and meeting overhead they kept almost every ray of light out. Liesel could not see the end of the path, and was almost afraid to venture into it.

"Suppose it should lead me to a wild beast's den," she thought, "I should not be able to get away from it."

She was, however, of a curious and enquiring disposition; and her curiosity overcame her timidity in this instance, as presently her wish to know what lay at the end of this dark passage led her on. She almost had to grope her way. Indeed, she would have had to do so, the passage became so dark and narrow further on, had it not been for a faint radiance like starlight which seemed to shine in front of her. On and on, until suddenly her arm was grasped and a deep hollow voice murmured in her ear—

"Stay! Are you myth or spirit that thus you come, bringing me that which for many years I have labored and toiled and searched!"

Trembling with fright, Liesel saw in the faint radiance which seemed to enfold them the figure of the white-haired white- bearded old man whom she had come out to seek.

When she realised that it was he, and nothing more fearful who had thus suddenly stopped her, she said calmly enough:

"I came to find you, sir; but, alas! I bring you nothing, unless indeed you will share the bread and meat I have in my little basket."

"What want I with bread and meat? If you speak of such gross things you must be mortal, girl. Think you that I care for bread and meat, which sustain life but for a short time, when you have with you a portion of that which if I can but obtain the whole will give me life, life! youth, youth! and health!"

His voice rose almost to a shriek as he pulled her after him for some distance, entering at length a small cavern dug out of the side of a hill, which appeared to terminate the dark walk. A rude light swung from the roof; and Liesel saw that the earthen floor had been beaten hard; and that a bundle of leaves in one corner served the hermit as a couch. There was nothing else; not a pot nor pan, not a vestige of covering to guard against cold or chilly nights; not a trace of food, except bundles of herbs and roots, which almost covered one side of the cave. A great pity filled the girl's heart, and she turned on the old man a look of tenderness.

"Poor old man! and so you really live here all alone, and like this?" she said softly.

His eyes—keen, fierce, blue ones, Liesel noticed—were fixed in an eager gaze on her hat.

"Girl! where did you get those flowers?"

He almost snatched off her hat, and carefully, reverently, removed the glistening star-like blossoms.

"I found them," she answered, simply and wonderingly.

"You know where they grow? Quick, girl!"

The veins in his temple stood out like whipcords, and he glared at her like a wild beast as she said—

"Yes."

"Lead me there quick. Lose not one second. A little longer—a little longer and it would have been too late. Come."

Still carefully holding the flowers he had taken from her, he motioned her to lead the way. Like one magnetised she obeyed, and swiftly and silently led him through the dark passage, the open glade, and along many a tortuous winding path. Once indeed it seemed as if her memory failed her, and she looked about her in perplexity. But the old man seizing her hand and looking deep into her eyes cried —

"I command you to lead me to the spot whence you gathered these flowers."

Then once more she led him—without doubt or wavering led him to the spot where she had planted the peeled sapling. There it stood, white and tall, with its little crimson flag fluttering in the breeze.

She stopped at this, and the old man, gazing wildly round in search of the blossoms, cried out:

"The flowers!—the flowers!"

"They are down there," said Liesel, pointing into the dark depth.

The old man groaned. He knew he could never get them.

"Girl, you must pluck them. . . Though to do so will bring ill luck in the future, I know not how or in what way. . But the flowers plucked by any other hand than mine. . . . Say, how many were there growing?"

"Seven."

"'Tis the number. Go at once since I cannot, and remember if you but crush one of the remaining five I will kill you."

Liesel did not hesitate. She knew she must obey, and looking at the track she had made when sliding down previously determined to go down now in the same manner, and was soon slipping down with the same velocity as previously.

Once in the dark depths of the hollow and waiting a few minutes she saw again the gleaming starry flowers. Sighing a little she plucked them one by one.

"Poor plant!" she said. "I cannot help taking all your treasures."

Very carefully she held the five blossoms and toiled slowly upwards until at length she stood beside the old man.

His face, seen as she saw it now in the full light of the sunshine, shocked her. It looked so old, so worn, so dying. Yes, that was the look. She had seen it once on the face of an old hunter who had died in their hut.

She was frightened as she put the flowers into his hands, which seemed now so feeble.

He took them, his white lips murmuring feebly—

"To get them now! and too late—too late—I can never return to the cave."

Then a sudden light gleaming in his eyes, which alone seemed to retain their vitality, he said—

"I will. It shall not be too late. Girl, as you hope for mercy, show mercy to me now. Help me to return to the cave, and then do as I bid you."

Not one thought of rebellion came to Liesel, Looking at him with her large dark eyes filled with tears she saw that he needed help, and willingly she gave it him, although she knew that by so doing she would not be able to return home that night. Full well she knew how dangerous it would be abroad in the forest after sunset; for then its wild and fierce denizens prowled forth seeking what they could devour.

How long and wearisome that return seemed. The old man had made her take off her hat and carefully place all seven blossoms in it.

"Fool! fool!" he muttered, "to carry the flowers. My age and feebleness might have robbed them of their virtue, but as yet they are undimmed; they do not droop."

Thinking to please him Liesel said—

"If they wither soon I will return and pluck you some more. The plant may flower again a week or two hence."

"Only once in a thousand years," he muttered feebly, as he leant heavily on his staff and followed her.

How slowly they went. To Liesel even it seemed an age, and at length, before they entered the narrow dark way, the old man was leaning heavily on her shoulder as well as upon his staff.

He kept his face turned from her and said—

"The dying breath—the dying breath of age will blight them. I must not breath upon them."

For this reason he crawled rather than walked in front of her when they entered the narrow path. Many times he stumbled, and would have fallen had not Liesel upheld him; and each time he cried—

"The flowers! the flowers! take heed of the flowers."

There they bloomed, fresh and fair, as Liesel could tell from the soft radiance they shed around them.

At length the old man and Liesel were in the cave. Tottering to the wall he took from a small cavity a tiny earthenware pipkin in which were a few grains of crimson powder.

"Take this flint and tinder," he gasped, "and light the fire which is there prepared. It has waited many years."

Dry sticks were carefully laid one across the other between two stones, over which lay a couple of small bars. Liesel soon kindled the dry fuel, and then obeying the old man took the flowers one by one from her hat, and removing each blossom carefully from its stem, placed them in the pipkin with the powder.

Then from a phial which he took from his bosom the old man poured a little liquid into the pipkin, from which smoke immediately arose. Gasping, "Place it over the flames, and when it boils bring it to me," he lay back panting and laboring for breath, his eyes watching her every movement with a pathetic eagerness.

"Spill but one drop and it is futile," he murmured. "Directly it bubbles bring it here."

Earnestly Liesel watched the contents of the pipkin, from which a strange odor arose slightly confusing her senses. She saw the first bubble rise, then the second. Instantly it was one mass of bubbles. Slowly and carefully she lifted the pipkin, and placed it beside him.

"Five minutes," he murmured; "Five minutes to wait. A life time. Aye, perhaps the ending of a life before that life-giving potion can be raised. I cannot do it. My hands are feeble, shaking. Girl! come hither, and when I tell you carefully, gently place the bowl to my mouth. Another second yet to wait. Another. Now!"

Her senses reeling with the odor which filled the cave, Liesel struggled to his side, and raising the pipkin to his lips heard him murmur—

"And now for another lifetime in the heyday of youth and health which nothing save accident can cut short."

The bowl was at his lips; Liesel saw a film come over the fierce blue eyes, but the resolute will conquered, and he drained the potion to the last dregs.

With a gasping sigh Liesel dropped the bowl, which fell shattered into a dozen fragments; and overcome by the pungent odor which filled the cavern, fell back unconscious.


CHAPTER II.

WHEN she came to herself the fire had burnt itself down into soft white ashes, and she saw the figure of the old man stretched on his couch of leaves. Something in the attitude struck her, and she approached softly. The rude lantern of bear's fat and dried rushes shed its pale light full on the face of the sleeper.

Was he asleep? Liesel touched his forehead softly. It was icy cold; so were his hands. His eyes were wide open, glassy, and staring.

"Alas! alas! he is dead!" cried Liesel, "and the flowers, which must have been some kind of medicine, have failed to keep him alive. Poor old man! when it is daylight I will go home and bring father to bury him. He cannot be left like this."

Then with reverent steps she withdrew softly and sat near the narrow opening of the cave, waiting until she should see light appear at the end of the dark walk, which would, as she knew, herald the return of day.

Poor child! The wild beasts lurked in front of her in the forest; and behind her lay a dead man. Her blood curdled at the thought, and she could not refrain from shuddering and occasionally looking behind her. But neither sound nor movement came from the still occupant of the couch of dried leaves.

At length, after what seemed to the waiting girl years, a faint streak of light showed itself, and then she knew that day had dawned. Rising from her cramped position she fled swiftly away; then paused; and returning, collected an armful of brushwood and placed it carefully across the opening of the cavern. "Wild beasts might come," she said.

Then swiftly she turned homewards. No danger of losing her way, for every footstep seemed familiar as she made her way through the glade, and on and on till she came once more to the peeled sapling. She decided to let it remain there until she brought her father back with her.

To make sure of not missing her way to this spot as she went along she blazed large trees at intervals with her little knife she always carried in her pocket.

Oh! how weary she was before she came once more to familiar landmarks. The huge pine tree under which she often sat and studied botany in her own crude fashion; the slippery rock with its little trickling waterfall, near which she so often gathered ferns and mosses; and here at length was the river, and there her father's hut; and yes, here was her father, still carrying his rifle and wearing his shot belt, hurrying in alarm to meet her.

"Liesel, where have you been?"

"In the forest, father."

"You must have started very early. It is not safe."

"Father, I have been away a day and a night."

"Then as they returned together to the hut and she prepared their simple meal she told him of all that had happened.

"And oh, father!" she concluded, "come back with me and bury the poor old man. I cannot bear to think of him lying there."

"Say no more, Liesel. Of course we will do so; but wait until you are rested, you look white and weary. Go to your bed, my child, and try to sleep awhile."

For three hours Liesel slept the sleep of one utterly exhausted and then woke bright and refreshed, ready and eager to get off with her father, who while she slept had been sorting the numerous skins he had brought home with him and had also made ready their midday meal.

Liesel ate very little, so eager was she to set out, and presently they went forth. The sun was shining fiercely, and even in the depth of the forest they felt its intense heat, although its rays could not reach them. The Harzwald is seen at its best at this time of the day, and Liesel could have revelled in its beauty and the companionship of her father but for the thought of the old man whom she had left stretched stiff and stark in the cave, and to whom they were hastening to give decent burial.

"Saints forbid," said Hans, "that the elves or gnomes should have meddled with him; they are thick about here."

"I saw none," said Liesel, creeping a little closer to him. "And, oh! father, if I had thought of them I should have been dead with fright."

"You were doing a good action, Liesel; and they rarely interfere with the good and pure. But it was a risk; they are very tricky sometimes."

Ere long they came to the peeled wand, and Liesel, pointing down the steep incline, said—"That is where I slipped down twice."

"And came up again. That is the wonder, it is as steep as the side of a wall. I should say, Liesel, that yours was the first human foot that has ever trod the soil down there. But come, you must not linger. Can you find your way to the cave from here?"

"Yes, I could not miss it."

And on they went, coming at length to the glade and the narrow dark pathway leading to the cave. They walked down this in reverent silence, but when at length they reached the cave the brushwood which Liesel had placed at the entrance had been pushed aside and not a trace of the old man was to be seen, save his heavy staff, which stood in the corner.

"Gott im Himmel!" ejaculated Hans. "It is as I thought, the elves have taken him."

"Oh, father! father! perhaps wild beasts."

"Not so; there would be tracks; there are none," said Hans, carefully peering about. "Not one. It is as I said, or perhaps he belonged to the Evil One and he has carried him off. The oil is exhausted in the lantern, Liesel, and if we don't go at once we shall be in total darkness; besides, we can do no good."

They retraced their steps, the mysterious disappearance of the body of the old man haunting their minds, and almost in silence made their way home.


CHAPTER III.

THE next day Hans went forth as usual, but on his return in the evening, contrary to custom, he brought a stranger with him; a young and handsome man, whose tall figure and well-knit frame pleased and delighted Hans.

The stranger had hailed him in cheery, joyful accents and had begged to join him in the chase. Together they had tracked a wild boar and slain him, and now at Hans' urgent invitation the newcomer, who was strangely reticent as to who and what he was and whence he came, had accompanied him home.

Liesel stood at the door awaiting her father's return. The last beams of the setting sun fell on her and lit up her fair young beauty with an almost ethereal radiance.

Hans saw the perceptible start which his companion gave as he caught sight of her and that his wonderful blue eyes almost emitted sparks of light.

"My daughter," Hans said briefly, and this formed the only introduction between the two.

Liesel felt a strong repugnance to the newcomer. His eyes haunted her. Where had she seen them before? Ah! they were the exact counterpart of the old hermit's eyes. Perhaps this youth was a relation —a grandson perhaps—or a great grandson, as he did not appear to be more than nineteen. He gave his name as Paul, and with that they had to be satisfied.

Three days sped and still he lingered, going with Hans every morning and returning with him in the evening. Hans had provided him with a rifle and a knife, and he proved himself a mighty hunter. So much so that Hans pressed him to remain with him and join his fortunes to his; but Paul refused, urging that he must go to Coburg. He wanted, he said, to mingle with his fellow- creatures and fight and battle his way among them. What could Hans be thinking that he kept a beautiful girl like Liesel cooped up among the forests and mountains, when by taking her to a large town she had only to be seen to marry some rich man who would keep her in luxury. "But," he added tenderly, "it is as well. She is a tender little blossom and would perhaps wither in the glare of pleasure. Never fear, Hans, I will return— return to thee and Liesel."

Liesel turned away.

"Impudent!" she muttered. "What care I if he never returns. I hate his eyes; they make me shudder."

"And now for life and pleasure," said Paul as he took his farewell, "I will return again."


CHAPTER IV.

MONTHS passed and they had seen nothing of him; but new pleasures and new interests had crept into Liesel's life.

Her father had brought home with him one evening, in the same manner as he had brought Paul, a young fair hunter, who seeing Liesel had loved her and she in return gave him all her first pure affection.

They, with Hans' full consent, were betrothed; and though his visit to Liesel were rare yet life was now one bright unclouded happiness.

And then one day Paul returned—Paul the same, and yet not the same. There was a weariness and forlornness in his manner which touched Liesel. The world was very different to what he had imagined it, he said. Times and men were changed, and the only happiness to be found was in the solitude of the mountains and forests.

Hans welcomed him heartily, but Liesel felt vaguely unhappy. Neither she nor Hans told Paul of her betrothal to Adolph as yet. Something else intervened. Hans was so curious and intent on hearing all he could about the great world, particularly the price of skins, with which information Paul accurately furnished him—that Liesel's betrothal escaped his memory. And Liesel herself was of too modest and retiring a disposition to speak about anything which concerned herself.

By degrees she noticed that Paul's eyes—the eyes which she dreaded—constantly watched her; that no word, no movement of hers, however slight or unimportant, escaped his notice. He forestalled her when she would have drawn water from the river, and in a hundred little ways showed her that he loved her and that she filled his mind.

This, of course, made Liesel very unhappy, and she determined to ask her father to tell Paul of her betrothal to Adolph.

"If you wish it," said Hans, "particularly as his visit draws nigh again."

That evening Hans told Paul and was troubled and pained at the white, drawn look which came over his face, but he said nothing.

The next day while hunting Hans remonstrated with Paul on the reckless manner in which he was behaving. "If I had not settled that she bear she would have settled you," said Hans. "What has come over you, Paul?"

"Once I thought that life and life alone was worth everything; that to breathe, to feel oneself young, strong, and active was all that could be desired. But of what use is life when a disease fills the heart and mind? When one would give that life many times over for one kind word, one kind look?"

"Poor lad," said Hans, "is it thus with thee? Take heart! There are other maidens as fair and as good as Liesel. Loth though I am to part with thee, yet it is better that thou shouldst go; and maybe thou wilt soon find another maid who will return thy love. Adolph comes this day, perhaps, and it would grieve me sorely if you two lads should quarrel over my Liesel."

A dark scowl swept across Paul's face and his hand instinctively sought the knife at his belt. Hans saw the action and shook his head, muttering "No, no, lad. There must be no bloodshed. Liesel is Adolph's betrothed by reason of their love."


CHAPTER V.

A WEEK after this conversation Adolph arrived and Liesel could not hide her joy. The sight of the lovers in their united affection was gall and wormwood to Paul, and he went moodily about, scowling and scarce speaking a word.

Hans feared that mischief was brewing and once more kindly but firmly entreated Paul to leave them, although he told him it "went against the grain" to do so, as it reflected on his hospitality.

The days sped by, bringing their accustomed duties and pleasures to Hans, Liesel, and Adolph. Alas! there were no pleasures for Paul. He spent sleepless miserable nights and moody profitless days. At length there came a day when by some chance Hans, while hunting with his two companions, became separated from them. Paul and Adolph were thrown together. They were tracking a brown bear. It had led them a long and circuitous chase, but at length they could tell they must be getting close to its lair. It was at no very great distance from Hans' hut, and Adolph spoke with horror of its proximity to Liesel.

"She often wanders alone in the forest," he said.

"Whom do you mean by she?" asked Paul sulkily. He had been filled with murderous thoughts against Adolph from the moment of finding himself alone with him.

"Why, Liesel—my betrothed."

"Your betrothed," said Paul sneeringly. "There are other men in the world besides you."

"Yes; but my Liesel cares for none of them. She only cares for me."

"It's a lie," thundered Paul, springing upon him. "Defend yourself if you can, for you or I must die."

"Paul!" exclaimed Adolph, warding off his attack. "Are you mad? I have no cause of quarrel against you."

"But I have with you," shouted Paul, his blue eyes blazing with wrath. "But for you Liesel would have loved me, and now—and now—life is not worth living."

Before Adolph could prevent him he had raised his hand swiftly and pierced his own side with his knife.

Adolph knelt beside him as he lay on the turf. The blood welling from the wound was fast staining its emerald hue with a dark purple color.

"Paul! Paul! what have you done? Help! Help! Hans! Hans!" he shouted, loading his rifle rapidly and letting off two or three charges in quick succession—a signal agreed upon in case of need.

Hans, who had been unsuccessful and was returning homeward, was on the spot in a very short tune. His horror was great at seeing Paul, who was now almost speechless but conscious. In answer to Hans' terrified questions as to whether they had fought he shook his head. Adolph explained rapidly as they quickly made a litter for the fast-dying man.

Tenderly they carried him home, and as the sun was setting, in at the open door, white and tearful, Liesel met them.

Paul feebly stretched his hand towards her, and as Hans held a flask to his lips he revived enough to whisper!

"Liesel, I am dying. Life was not worth living without love—your love; there was only one woman's love worth gaining—Liesel, bend closer. It will be death this time. Do you remember—the cave—do you remember—" His voice died away; the feeble grasp of his fingers relaxed and silence reigned in the little hut, for Death, the King of Terrors, had forced an entrance.

* * * * *

WHEN Liesel in after days, a happy wife and mother, told Hans that Paul had by his last whispered words to her confirmed the suspicion which she had always had—that his spirit had once inhabited the worn-out frame of the old, old man who had been known as the Hermit—Hans laughed and pinching her cheek softly said—

"Happiness has turned thy brain, Liesel. If the Hermit could have gained a new lease of life, and such life and youth and health as poor Paul had, do you think he would have forfeited it all after one short year? No, no. The Hermit was spirited away by elves or gnomes, who, as you know, haunt these parts."

"Never mind," said Liesel under her breath; "I know what I know." He spoke of the cave, and he said—"Life was not worth living without Love."


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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